In the second shake-up in two years at Universal Pictures’ Focus Features label, CEO Peter Schlessel will exit his post on April 1. Peter Kujawaski, managing director of Universal Pictures International Productions, will become the chairman of a reorganized banner that will combine UPIP and Focus. UPIP Co-Managing Director Robert Walak will become President and Universal Pictures’ Executive Vice President of Film Strategy, Abhijay Prakash, will join Focus as Chief Operating Officer.
Schlessel will oversee the release of the division’s upcoming releases of Race, London Has Fallen and The Young Messiah before his departure. Current Focus COO Adrian Alperovich, Marketing President Christine Birch and President of Acquisitions Lia Buman will also be exiting Focus Features in April.
Under the constraints of the structure that Schlessel and his team were given to work within, it seemed as though Focus could not truly compete and thrive. It appears that the company is now going back to its roots and in a structure similar to Fox Searchlight that could acquire, say, a property at a festival and then spread its risk across the world utilizing its global reach. The units have been tied together and separated out before as the studio has gone through various restucturings over the years. Recently, some of the projects that Universal took on — including Legends and Steve Jobs — were considered more suited as Focus titles and had observers around town scratching their heads as to why they were released through the studio proper.
Schlessel took over in a surprise turn in October 2013 when James Schamus exited the company to produce a film with Ang Lee. Schlessel was given a mandate to increase the number of films the division releases to as many as ten per year. “With Universal’s success in the diversity of its slate I was happy to help transition the company back to a pure specialty label,” he said in a prepared statement released by the studio.
Kujawski, known to insiders as Kujo, is a well-liked executive who began his career at Good Machine, where he started as an assistant to company co-founder and co-president Schamus.
When Good Machine was absorbed into Focus Features in the spring of 2002, Kujawski joined Focus where he eventually served as executive vice president international sales, but arrived at the studio in 2011 as executive vice president worldwide acquisitions before his appointment to Managing Director of UPIP in September, 2014. That was a newly created position and part of an ongoing executive restructuring of the international business which began in April 2014. Under his leadership, UPIP acquired rights to hugely successful films, including The Wolf of Wall Street, Boyhood and Room, which Universal released in select territories. In fact, Kujawski was key in Universal acquiring multiple territories on Room at Cannes.
Universal says by making this move, it will create a powerhouse division from which Universal Pictures “will grow the specialty film sector both domestically and around the world.” The announcement was made today by Universal Pictures Chairman Donna Langley.
Walak is a respected executive in international circles, having joined the studio in 2015 as Co-Managing Director of UPIP. He will continue to be based in London in his new role. Walak came to Universal after serving as Managing Director Europe/President Production, Acquisitions and Television at The Weinstein Company for several years, where he led a range of acquisitions, including Carol, Paddington, The Imitation Game and The Woman in Gold.
Prior to joining Weinstein, Walak was Senior Vice President, Acquisitions & Production at Alliance Films/Momentum Pictures, where he led the acquisition of The King’s Speech. Previously, he worked in business development at Endemol and was a producer at MTV Europe.
Meanwhile, Prakash most recently served as Executive VP, Film Strategy & Operations at Universal, overseeing a team responsible for key strategic initiatives while also supporting operations related to studio slate planning, greenlighting, marketing optimization and film financing across the studio’s various product lines. Prior to joining the studio, he worked at the Boston Consulting Group and also held other positions in media and worked as a public policy researcher.
Universal’s has had some decent international and local-language hits in the past year — those have included Spanish Affairs 2, the 3rd highest grossing Spanish film of all time (the first in the series, Spanish Affairs is No. 1) and Babysitting 2 in France which has grossed about $23M to date and is still in release. This past weekend it scored a No. 1 in Italy with L’Abbiamo Fatta Grosso.