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'Focusing' on Schamus

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As chief executive of Universal's Focus Features, James Schamus knows first hand what his awards nominees feel because he's been there himself.

Schamus' longtime collaboration with director Ang Lee gave him a best screenplay and best song nomination for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and a best picture nomination in the last Oscars for "Brokeback Mountain." He lost each time.

This season, Focus is pushing such films as "Hollywoodland" starring Ben Affleck as 1950s "Superman" star George Reeves, "Catch a Fire" starring Tim Robbins and Derek Luke set in the 1980s during South Africa's Apartheid era and the documentary "The Ground Truth" about soldiers returning home from Iraq.

How do you see your awards season shaping up?

For us it's been a very modest year. Last year, we had "Brokeback Mountain" and "The Constant Gardener." We had a tremendous year. That said, we've had some tremendous performances we're proud of and we'll just see because the pictures performed modestly.

So you see this as less of a year for the pictures than for the performances?

Yes. Unless you've got an angle I haven't see yet.

Does box office performance help or hurt a film for awards?

The answer to that, unfortunately, is complicated. The Academy Awards recognizes achievement and our industry is one, even in its most specialized corners, prides itself in reaching out to audiences and succeeding. On the other hand, box office should not be a determining factor in recognizing achievement in film. But it's hard. We are a business. When films don't perform to their lower end of expectations, there is something of a stigma.

What attracted you to "Hollywoodland?"

There's a very smart, melancholic tone about the price of not just fame but the pursuit of it. It rang very, very true to me. Ben's performance is radiant. He was the nicest guy ever to work with. This is a real person who has been through the celebrity wringer. If you or I went through that, we would emerge as fairly damaged people. This guy has actually emerged in hopeful, smarter, more collegial, more generous. Everybody is kind of just rooting for Ben here.

Did he need any persuading to do it?

He recognized it. It's a part that really had so much to it that it didn't' take long to respond.

What about "Catch a Fire?"

With Tim and Derek these are parts that are few and far between. Phillip Noyce, the director, is a guy who is capable of making the grandest Hollywood spectacles imaginable. But the past decade he's devoted himself to telling stories that tradition has left to the side very often.

How do you interest today's audience in the subject of apartheid?

Well, we're trying. It's funny, though. We got a reviewer who said it's a well done film, but why are they bringing up this topic now because it's old news. I took that review and pasted it into an e-mail. Every time the reviewer mentioned apartheid and how nobody cares about it I put in the word "Holocaust" just to see what it looked like. It was insane.

How much does awards season matter?

When you get into that cycle and it works for you, the awards are a very important part of your business. But as you know October, November and December have become a death race. It's just a colossal bloodbath out there. The best case scenario easily turns very often into the worst case scenario for so many pictures.

Because you're bumping up against everybody else.

Yea.

You've been a nominee while running an operation with nominees out there. What's it like when you are also in the mix personally?

It makes it a little more difficult for me. My first allegiance is to the company and to all my filmmakers. Its been almost a year since the real thick of last year's campaign. I was so rigorous about it and I was anxious about it, not just for appearance's sake. You never saw a single article or even a whisper in a column saying "Oh, since Schamus is nominated for X, he's not supporting Y."

I was pleased about that for a number of reasons: One, it would have been unpleasant to have read that and No. 2, the opposite was true. Maybe I overcompensated a bit because of that, but I have to get up the morning after the Oscars and run a company and I have to make sure the greatest filmmakers in the world feel confident and comfortable we're going to support them here. I really have to be careful.

Is it at least nice to be up for the award?

For me, there is probably more embarrassment than satisfaction. "Brokeback" didn't win best picture with the Academy, but had picked so many other kudos during the season. Every time I trotted up on stage I was very aware that was accepting not only on behalf of the entire filmmaking team, but all of my colleagues at the company. That's a lot of thank yous to slip in and, of course, you can't.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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