It was a big — and emotional — Thursday night for the old Focus Features as their Oscar hopeful Dallas Buyers Club had a very well-received Los Angeles premiere at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The movie, which had a rocky road just getting to the screen, brought strong response both for the film and at the beginning, when the Focus Features logo came up on screen greeted by an unusual burst of applause. It was undoubtedly a show of gratitude for the memorable lineup of movies the company, which is now undergoing a major transformation and apparent change of mission, has turned out since 2002 when it was formed out of remnants of USA Films, Universal Focus and Good Machine. Longtime Focus head James Schamus, who was suddenly replaced two weeks ago as CEO by FilmDistrict’s Peter Schlessel, held court in the lobby afterward for what he told me was their “last hurrah”. In a classy move, Schlessel stayed away from the premiere, letting Schamus and his team have the spotlight for the Oscar-touted movie that could represent the end of a great art house era for Focus — a company which may be focusing on more mainstream and genre films (at least in part) in the future.
Schamus was soaking in the praise and taking it all in stride, telling me, “This film is very important and we have believed in it from the beginning. We are taking this one all the way to the altar, all the way, and I am going to be there for it.” We both recalled that he started telling me about the special nature of Dallas Buyers Club at Cannes in May. “I get the same feeling I got 11 years ago when we saw The Pianist take off, ” he said about the underdog 2002 Roman Polanski-directed movie that won three major Oscars and almost took Best Picture (Chicago squeaked it out, but likely very narrowly). Outgoing marketing head David Brooks also was upbeat about the reaction to the film last night, but acknowledged it was a little bittersweet. The film represents the kind of movie Focus has so successfully shepherded through many an Oscar season. Outgoing co-CEO Andrew Karpen was among other Focus execs in attendance along with parent company Universal’s Ron Meyer, Donna Langley and newly installed chairman Jeff Shell who took over for Adam Fogelson last month.
Star Matthew McConaughey, who lost about 40 pounds to play early AIDS victim and crusader Ron Woodruff, predictably drew much praise afterwards for a near-certain first Best Actor Oscar nomination. He also received a standing ovation at the film’s Sunday night screening at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn for the SAG nominating committee. He told me then about the script’s long incubation: “It’s been around what, 16 years? It was on my desk for 4 years and I never took it off. I would finish a film and then say ‘what about this one?’ but nobody was ever that eager to get it made. But we slowly got the pieces together. We didn’t even quite have the financing a week from starting shooting. Part of it was just kind of us saying we are going to make it. I got calls along the way saying ‘stop losing weight. It’s not gonna happen’, but I said ‘yeah it is gonna happen, it’s gonna happen’.”
As at its Toronto premiere, another name everyone was mentioning was Jared Leto, heartbreakingly fine as a transexual AIDS victim, who drew instant talk for a Best Supporting Actor nomination after being away from movies for five years to pursue his successful rock career. When I briefly spoke to Leto in the lobby he was surprisingly calm about the kudos being thrown his way for his acting return. McConaughey delivers brilliantly as expected, but Leto (who got down to around 116 pounds) is the revelation here. Also getting congratulations was Jennifer Garner, never better as the doctor who is really the heart of the film.
The movie, directed superbly by Jean-Marc Vallée, was introduced by producers Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter who were clearly excited to finally see this day after years of false starts and development; the story behind the scenes of just getting the movie done is almost as compelling as the one on screen. By the way, the Winter family could have an interesting awards season with dueling contenders as husband Terence Winter (supporting his wife at the premiere) wrote the screenplay for Paramount’s The Wolf Of Wall Street which director Martin Scorsese is hurriedly trying to ready for a December release despite rumors that it might not make the date due to extensive postproduction (originally it was set for November 15, but that was scrapped). Winter told me he and Rachel actually saw the film Monday night and currently it is just under three hours, and Scorsese is continuing to edit. He said he expects it will be out this year just in time for the Oscar race and signaled out star Leonardo DiCaprio and supporting actor Jonah Hill for particular praise. McConaughey also has a role in the film. Winter says he wrote the script in 2007, just before starting to create his hit HBO series Boardwalk Empire on which Scorsese serves as an executive producer and won an Emmy directing the pilot.