FilmDistrict’s Schlessel to head Focus Features as Schamus departs

Peter Schlessel
FilmDistrict founder Peter Schlessel, above, will become chief executive of Focus Features in January, Universal Pictures announced.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

In an overhaul of its Focus Features imprint, Universal Pictures is installing FilmDistrict founder Peter Schlessel as the new head of the specialty movie label. James Schamus, Focus’ current chief executive, will leave the company.

Schlessel, FilmDistrict’s chief executive, will assume the CEO role at Focus in January, Universal announced Wednesday. Focus is best known for such films as “Brokeback Mountain,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Atonement” and “The Kids are All Right.” The company will release “Dallas Buyers Club” on Nov. 1 and is producing the “Fifty Shades of Grey” film adaptation, which will come out next year.

As part of the shakeup, starting in January, movies from FilmDistrict will be released by Focus. FilmDistrict, which recently released “Insidious: Chapter 2,” has a distribution arrangement with Sony Pictures Entertainment that includes ancillary markets. A spokesperson for that studio said its deal with FilmDistrict would continue until its expiration in March.

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The move is the first significant change at Universal since Donna Langley was elevated to chairman of the company and former head Adam Fogelson was forced out last month. 

Universal, a unit of Comcast Corp.-owned NBCUniversal, said Schlessel would broaden the types of movies Focus puts out and release as many as 10 films annually. In previous years, Universal had entertained selling or closing Focus. 

Also, Schlessel will build a new executive team that would include people from both Focus and FilmDistrict. Focus, based in New York, will relocate its headquarters to the Universal lot.

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“It is a great honor to be joining Donna and the other talented executives at Universal Pictures,” said Schlessel in a statement. “The Focus brand is respected throughout the industry and we intend to build on this while expanding the perception of what constitutes a Focus Features film.”

The art-house-oriented Focus was created in 2002 by a merger of USA Films, Universal Focus and Good Machine. Among its recent movies were “The Place Beyond the Pines,” “Anna Karenina” and “Promised Land." 

Universal said Schamus, co-founder of Focus, is departing to produce an Ang Lee project that the studio would release. The director’s boxing saga will examine some of the biggest prize fights of the 1960s and 1970s. Lee won the directing Oscar earlier this year for “Life of Pi.”

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In addition to running Focus, Schamus also has been a filmmaker and an academic. He has a long collaboration with Lee that spans 11 films, having produced the director’s “Brokeback Mountain” and co-written the screenplay for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Schamus also produced and wrote the screenplay for Lee’s “Taking Woodstock,” “Hulk” and “The Ice Storm,” and was an executive producer and a writer on the director’s “Lust, Caution.”

He is a professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and author of the book “Carl Theodor Dreyer’s ‘Gertrud’.”

“It’s been an amazing and joyous run at Focus, where our love of film has always been matched by our love and respect for our filmmakers and for each other,” Schamus said in a statement. “I wish Peter all the best with the next chapter, and look forward to working with my great colleagues at Universal on Ang’s movie and many more to come.” 



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