EXCLUSIVE: The news that Universal dropped another bombshell today and announced that James Schamus would leave as head of Focus Features has left everyone at that boutique label reeling. But it hits the company’s New York staff hardest: …
BREAKING: Another shoe has dropped at Universal Pictures, as former top Sony exec Peter Schlessel has taken the reins of its prestige film label Focus Features in an effort to beef up the company’s output. James Schamus, the bow-tied erudite writer/producer who has run Focus, will leave to produce the 3D boxing movie that will be directed by his regular collaborator, Oscar winning Life Of Pi director Ang Lee. FilmDistrict, which was launched by Schlessel, Graham King and Tim Headington, will have its films absorbed into the new Focus Features. Focus has always had a strong executive team and a good record of profitability under Schamus and Andrew Karpen’s leadership–they won world rights for $6 million for one of Toronto’s most coveted films, the Jason Bateman-directed Bad Words–but it is too early to say what the new structure will be until Schlessel gets settled in January. He will report to Donna Langley, who became Universal Pictures chairman in the recent shakeup that left Adam Fogelson packing, and Jeff Shell in command at the studio with Ron Meyer becoming vice chairman of NBC Universal.
This is a big opportunity for Schlessel, by all accounts a nice guy but who is hardly a pushover. He was very instrumental in talent and other deals at Sony and has always been considered a sharp dealmaker who now gets even further involved on the creative side as Focus seeks to ramp up its output. Langley has been working quite closely with Focus after she emerged with the deal to make a film trilogy from the EL James blockbuster novel Fifty Shades Of Grey, which has been supervised by Jeb Brody. Deadline was first to reveal in August that Lee would make the epic look at such great boxing matches in the 60s and 70s, including the Thrilla In Manila bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. It is a way for Lee to continue his transformative work in the 3D ring. Peter Morgan is writing the script for that film at Universal.
BREAKING: Andrew Dosunmu will direct Focus Features’ drama with music Fela Kuti, which is currently in development. Focus CEO James Schamus and co-CEO Andrew Karpen announced the hiring. This is the film that has been developed with Chiwetel Ejiofor attached to star, and while a deal hasn’t gone down and nothing is definitive, he is hot stuff coming off the lead role in 12 Years A Slave. The film is separate from the Broadway musical. Focus has its own feature rights package that include Fela’s music, rights gathered by producers Lydia Pilcher and Leigh Blake.
Fela, considered Africa’s answer to Bob Marley, is as famous for his Afrobeat musical style — a fusion of jazz, funk and West African drums — as he was for speaking out against government oppression in Nigeria. He was a larger-than-life figure, had 27 wives, and his outspoken nature proved costly when his house was raided and his 78-year-old mother thrown to her death from a second-story window. He deposited the coffin on the steps of the Nigerian leader’s home.
Dallas Buyers Club, one of the most anticipated films of the year and certainly this Toronto International Film Festival, made its debut Saturday night to a standing ovation. Star Matthew McConaughey lost tons of weight in order to convincingly play Ron Woodroof, an early victim of AIDS who extended his life by illegally pioneering into the world of drugs designed to stem the disease. With much advance Oscar buzz for the Focus Features release, Dallas Buyers Club recently moved into early November from its original December release date. There was heavy anticipation not only for Saturday night’s 10 PM screening but also earlier when I caught it at a morning press showing. Bottom line: It does not disappoint and contains the expected Oscar-caliber performance certain to finally gain a Best Actor nod for McConaughey – and also a surprising turn from Jared Leto, just superb as a transsexual AIDS patient who befriends Ron. It would seem an absolute no-brainer that both will be sitting front and center come March 2nd at the Dolby Theatre when Oscar winners are announced. If there are two better performances by anyone this year I have not seen them.
At the Ciba restaurant late night party following the screening, Focus Features President James Schamus was beaming. Not just from the reaction to Dallas, but also because he pulled off a coup at dawn (he told me) sealing the deal for the hilarious and well-received Jason Bateman directorial debut Bad Words. It went for $7 million – a steal considering the potential of this R-rated comedy I predicted would sell in a minute. Universal‘s Ron Meyer, Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley were also celebrating that coup and the success of their specialty division’s Dallas triumph. But this night belonged to the cast and crew, especially McConaughey whom Schamus told me at May’s Cannes Festival was delivering ”the performance of a lifetime”. This was a project, according to producers Rachel Winter and Robbie Brenner, that took nearly 20 years to bring to the screen. A good chunk of that was made of the blood, sweat, tears and never-say-die tenacity of Brenner who said she just kept pushing that Dallas rock up the hill no matter what the odds.
Here’s the official release from Focus Features confirming Deadline’s morning scoop:
TORONTO, September 7th, 2013 – Worldwide rights to the comedy Bad Words, directed by and starring Jason Bateman, have been acquired by Focus Features for a 2014 theatrical release. Focus CEO James Schamus and co-CEO Andrew Karpen made the announcement today at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie is having its world premiere.
Bad Words, a Darko Entertainment/Aggregate Films/MXN production, was represented at Toronto by Creative Artists Agency and Hicks Professional Law Corporation, which made the deal with Focus at the Festival. The movie is the feature directorial debut of Mr. Bateman, who last starred in the blockbuster comedy Identity Thief and is currently an Emmy Award nominee for Arrested Development. Mr. Bateman is also a producer of the new movie through his company Aggregate, with Academy Award nominee Mason Novick (Juno) of MXN and Darko’s Sean McKittrick and Jeff Culotta. Andrew Dodge wrote the original screenplay; it is his first to be produced, and it was selected for “The Black List” in 2011.
In the movie, Mr. Bateman portrays Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old man seeking catharsis in his life. He seizes the ideal that this will come for him through…the National Spelling Bee; after discovering a loophole in the rules, Guy zealously joins the competition and easily outpaces the pre-teen field in match after match. As reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn of Afternoon Delight) delves into Guy’s story, Guy finds himself forging an unlikely friendship with a competitor, awkward 10-year-old Chaitanya (Rohan Chand of Homeland), which may spell things differently for his future. Bad Words also stars Screen Actors Guild Award winner Allison Janney, Ben Falcone (Bridesmaids), Rachael Harris (The Hangover), and Philip Baker Hall (Argo).
PREVIOUS EXCLUSIVE, 8:48 AM: Focus Features is making a big acquisition of Bad Words, paying in the vicinity of $7 million for world rights, I’m told. It marks the first big money deal at Toronto. The film marks the directorial debut of Jason Bateman, who stars as a man who discovers a loophole in the rules of the National Spelling Bee. He dominates the pre-pubescent competition with keen spelling skills and and a propensity for trash talking. He forms an unlikely friendship with an awkward boy of Indian descent, and all the while a reporter trails him trying to find his real motivation for disrupting the spelling bee world.
EXCLUSIVE: Focus Features has found a writer for Longbourn, the period pic based on the novel that reimagines Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice from the point of view of the servants at the Bennet family estate. Angela Workman has come aboard to adapt the Jo Baker novel that Focus acquired rights to in February to co-produce with Random House Studio. The book is set to be published this fall by Transworld in the UK, Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S., and Random House in Canada. Workman, repped by Gersh and UK-based Sayle Screen, is no stranger to the adaptation game. Her credits include Snow Flower And The Secret Fan, based on the Lisa See novel, and she wrote the script based on Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction best-seller The Zookeeper’s Wife for Annapurna Pictures. She also penned the historical tale Bronte for DreamWorks, and she is just wrapping work on an untitled biopic of Depression-era photojournalist Dorothea Lange.to be produced by David Fincher and directed by Leslie Dektor.
If your movie was released in March or April, and has Oscar aspirations, it requires every trick in an Academy consultant’s publicity handbook to try to keep it alive against the massive onslaught of competition unleashed in the back eight months of the year. Very few films released before May at the earliest make the cut these days, at least in the major categories. Oscar voters tend to have short memories. It’s an uphill climb that requires money for big campaigns, a tall order for independent films with limited budgets.
One way to do it is get your Blu-ray out there in August with some fresh television advertising, well before screener season begins, and hope that voters have a chance to check it out before the tsunami of movies start bombarding them in the Fall. For Roadside Attractions‘ Mud which was released in theatres April 26th and Focus Features‘ The Place Beyond The Pines which debuted March 29th, their dueling road to Oscar continues this week with the release of their Blu-ray and DVD. The films have the current distinction of being the two top grossing independent films of 2013, both in the $21 million range, with Mud this week just slightly overtaking Pines for the lead but it remains a dead heat.
Oliver Platt, Andy Garcia, Tim Blake Nelson Round Out Cast Of Scott Stuber-Produced ‘Kill The Messenger’
Production has begun in Atlanta, Georgia on Kill the Messenger. Focus Features holds worldwide theatrical rights to the true-life dramatic thriller, which will be released in 2014. Focus CEO James Schamus and co-CEO Andrew Karpen made the announcement today.
Two-time Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner stars as Gary Webb, the real-life dedicated reporter for The San Jose Mercury-News. In the 1990s, Webb uncovered the Central Intelligence Agency’s role in importing cocaine into California that was sold to raise money for the Nicaraguan Contras rebel army. Supported by his wife and children, Webb pursued the story and went public with his evidence. When targeted for a vicious smear campaign by the CIA and rival journalists, Webb found himself fighting for his reputation and his family.
Joining Mr. Renner in the cast are Josh Close (of The Master), Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married), Academy Award nominee Andy Garcia, Lucas Hedges (Focus’ Moonrise Kingdom), Tim Blake Nelson (Lincoln), Robert Patrick (True Blood), Emmy Award winner Barry Pepper, Screen Actors Guild Award nominee Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon), Paz Vega (I’m So Excited!), Michael Kenneth Williams (Boardwalk Empire), and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (The Spectacular Now).
NEW YORK, June 27th, 2013 – The global release of Fifty Shades of Grey will start in North America on Friday, August 1st, 2014 with opening dates around the world to be announced. The Focus Features domestic theatrical release will be in theaters nationwide. Universal Pictures International is releasing the movie in the rest of the world.
Sam Taylor-Johnson is directing the highly anticipated film adaptation of E L James’ #1 bestselling book. Fifty Shades of Grey has been adapted into a screenplay by Kelly Marcel. Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti are producing the movie version alongside Ms. James.
EXCLUSIVE: Sam Taylor-Johnson, whose directorial debut was 2009′s Nowhere Boy about the early life of John Lennon, has been secured to direct Fifty Shades Of Grey, the sizzling novel adaptation from Universal Pictures and Focus Features. Fellow Brit Kelly Marcel has written the script for the movie, based on EL James’ bestseller that follows the relationship between 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey and college student Anastasia Steele. Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca are producing alongside James. “Sam’s unique ability to gracefully showcase complex relationships dealing with love, emotion and sexual chemistry make her the ideal director to bring Christian and Anastasia’s relationship to life,” said De Luca. “EL James’ characters and vivid storytelling require a director who is willing to take risks and push the envelope where needed, and Sam is a natural fit.”
This is a hot job, and rumors have been flying about directors like Gus Van Sant, Susanne Bier and Joe Wright in the running, but Taylor-Johnson is a surprise choice. In addition to Nowhere Boy, which garnered her a pair of BAFTA nominations and an eventual husband in that film’s star Aaron Taylor-Johnson (of Kick-Ass fame), she had only directed the short film Love You More which was in Cannes in 2008. She also has ties to De Luca — the pair are in development on a film based on the Robert Goorlick novel A Reliable Wife which De Luca is also producing. Before landing the Nowhere Boy gig, Taylor-Johnson was a well-known photographer and visual artist whose work captured and explored issues of human sexuality.