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.
As for Schlessel’s FilmDistrict partners King and Headington, they were not regretful because they were investing in Schlessel. “GK Films’ investment was in our partner Peter Schlessel and we’re extremely proud of the incredible distribution company he created in FilmDistrict,” they said in a statement. “Peter now has a wonderful opportunity at Focus where he can expand on his strengths while continuing to oversee the FilmDistrict library.”
Here is the official Universal announcement:
Universal Pictures Chairman Donna Langley today announced that the company is evolving Focus Features to maximize its potential by including a greater variety of movies on Focus Features’ film slate. FilmDistrict founder and CEO Peter Schlessel will transition to Focus Features as its CEO as of January, 2014 reporting to Langley. FilmDistrict films set for release after January 2014 are expected to be absorbed into the newly constituted Focus Features.
“The breadth and depth of Peter’s experience in the film business including production, acquisitions, distribution and most recently running FilmDistrict, will be a tremendous asset to Focus Features as the company broadens its portfolio beyond the production and distribution of specialty product,” said Langley. “Peter is one of the most talented executives in the industry and I’m confident that under his leadership, Focus will become even more of a force as the specialty film business continues to evolve.”
Schlessel will be seeking to broaden the types of films that Focus distributes and increase the number of films the division releases to as many as ten films per year. The slate will be populated by a combination of projects developed and produced internally at Focus, as well as films acquired during various stages of development and production. In an effort to establish a closer relationship with Universal’s global distribution and marketing divisions, Focus Features will relocate its headquarters to Los Angeles. In the coming weeks, Schlessel will be putting together the newly reconstituted Focus Features executive team which will be comprised of key leaders from within the ranks of both FilmDistrict and Focus.
Schlessel comes to Focus Features with a portfolio that is tailor made for the division’s evolution and growth. He brings decades of experience in the filmed entertainment industry including the success of FilmDistrict as well as overseeing production and acquisitions at Sony Pictures amongst many other senior leadership positions.
“It is a great honor to be joining Donna and the other talented executives at Universal Pictures,” said Schlessel. “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.”
Current Focus Features CEO James Schamus, who co-founded Focus Features over 12 years ago and is a passionate advocate for specialty film, will leave the company to concentrate on Ang Lee’s next film which he is producing with Lee and developing at Universal. The film is an epic look at the boxing world of the 1960s and 1970s, seen through the prism of its biggest rivalries and greatest fights, including the Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali showdown known as the “Thrilla in Manila.”
“I have tremendous admiration for James who has grown Focus Features into a premier brand and we are grateful to him for his commitment to Focus and many years of service,” said Langley.
“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,” said Schamus. “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.”
Focus Features will release Dallas Buyers Club starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto beginning on November 1 in a platform release pattern beginning in New York and Los Angeles. In a highly competitive acquisitions market at the Toronto Film Festival, Focus also recently acquired worldwide distribution rights to Bad Words in which Jason Bateman stars and makes his feature film directorial debut.
Under Schlessel’s leadership FilmDistrict has established itself as a successful U.S. distributor and acquirer of feature films including the recent blockbuster opening of Insidious: Chapter 2, Olympus Has Fallen, Looper, Evil Dead, Safety Not Guaranteed and Drive among other titles. Upcoming FilmDistrict releases include Oldboy, the Spike Lee directed re-interpretation of the highly-acclaimed South Korean suspense film, on November 27, 2013; That Awkward Moment starring Zac Efron, Miles Teller, and Michael B. Jordan on January 31, 2014; Pompeii starring Kit Harington on February 21, 2014 (which will continue to be distributed by TriStar Pictures); and Selfless starring Ryan Reynolds on September 26, 2014.