Outside Hollywood, movies are produced, programmed and released by a close-knit community that goes back several generations. When someone from that world drops out of the picture, the support system usually comes out of the woodwork. That was certainly the case this past week with the news that indie stalwart James Schamus would leave Focus Features, the specialty division of Universal that he founded 12 years ago. The news came as a particular blow to the New York film world, as the Focus headquarters would now move to L.A. and join forces with the decidedly more commercially minded FilmDistrict.
Anyone familiar with Schamus’ track record both before and after Focus can understand the drama, though it might be more productive to peer beyond it.
Schamus, a longtime collaborator of Ang Lee, initially founded Good Machine with Ted Hope, where the duo shepherded indie successes like “The Ice Storm” and Todd Solondz’s “Happiness.” Transforming Universal’s now-defunct USA Films into Focus, Schamus became one of the few executives with genuine cinephile sensibilities (as well as literary ambitions) and the power to sneak them into the studio game.
The slate that Schamus constructed at Focus certainly introduced different kinds of narratives to wide release: Movies like “Brokeback Mountain” and “Brick” reconstituted traditional genre tropes in original and surprising ways; “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was the finest example of expressionistic romance that American movies have seen; “Coraline” provided a brilliantly odd contrast with mainstream animation; “Lost in Translation” and “Broken Flowers” gave us fresh reasons to appreciate Bill Murray. Focus became known for presenting familiar elements of commerciality rejiggled to ensure a certain artistry remained in check.
One less outlet for those kinds of movies unquestionably makes that game harder to play, so the response to Schamus’ departure prompted plenty of groans about the end of an era. “The loss of Schamus should should shame us,” wrote Ted Hope on his Truly Free Film blog. “A blow not only to the filmmakers supported by Focus and the company’s employees but also our broader independent film community,” added Scott Macaulay at Filmmaker. My colleague Anne Thompson put it bluntly: “Right. Just what we all need.”
And yet reading these tributes, which collectively struck a mournful and largely pessimistic tone, I couldn’t help but recall last weekend’s finale of “Breaking Bad,” particularly Walter White’s sarcastic consolation to the avaricious Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz in a final showdown: “Cheer up, beautiful people. This is where you get to make it right.”
Schamus, thankfully, is very much still with us — teaching at Columbia, producing a new movie with Ang Lee, and probably sifting through dozens of new opportunities. The Focus conundrum is less of a tragedy for Schamus than an opportunity to consider the larger plane of cinema that never figured into the company’s legacy. Focus had the power to slip some adventurous filmmaking into a wider avenue for distribution, but even he couldn’t do a great deal for the vast majority of truly unique work being produced each year. That’s where the real little guys come in.
When it had wiggle room, Focus certainly wiggled. Risky bets like “The American” and “Eternal Sunshine,” possibly the best examples of Focus’ capacity to push creative storytelling to a general audience, actually made some money. Earlier this year, the company did pretty well with Edgar Wright’s “The World’s End,” a neat alternative to mainstream buddy comedies with a naughtier edge, and even the upcoming “Dallas Buyers Club” brings a rougher mentality to its AIDS plot line than most issue-driven Oscar fare.
But I doubt a company like Focus could ever get away with releasing “Club Sandwich,” the latest coming-of-age drama from rising Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke, currently the subject of a retrospective at the New York Film Festival. The sweet, awkward tale of an adolescent boy’s first romance, exclusively set at a vacation resort, has yet to find a U.S. distributor, partly because even though it’s a widely liked drama, its commerciality is far too suspect.
Working in a wilder vein, cult director Alejandro Jodorworsky’s inventive “The Dance of Reality,” which premiered at Cannes in May, has no U.S. release date planned. Its wacky metaphorical approach to life under dictatorship contains surrealist inspiration on par with the octogenarian Jodoroworsky’s seminal “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain,” but it’s actually more emotionally involving than either. “The Dance of Reality” is a good example of cinema that could never be forced into the studio system, no matter how coy the marketing materials surrounding its release. The same description applies to Albert Serra’s beguiling Casanova quasi-biopic “The Story of My Death,” in which the historical figure comes face to face with changing times in the form of Dracula, and the contemplative cable-car portrait “Manakamana,” which simply watches people in a series of static shots for two hours straight. If the Schamus-era Focus couldn’t figure out a solution for getting these types of works out there, who can?
Part of the problem is that the dream of divisions in studios harboring the best in current cinema stems from a lost cause. The hoopla surrounding the company’s latest developments reflects frustrations surrounding attempts to treat indie film as a scalable proposition. But the entire idea of boundary-pushing art, or at least artistically-constructed storytelling that runs counter to mainstream standards, mandates its marginalization in the marketplace. Just as Picturehouse, Warner Independent and Paramount Vantage faded into their parent companies’ bottom line agendas a few years back, so too goes Focus. However, there have always been works that trickle down to the bottom of the distribution pyramid, and when one of the crucial pieces at the top gets removed, it provides a better peek at the tiny movies that have congealed at the bottom. If the Focus dream has died, its wake brings several other dreams into view.
There might be fewer and fewer prospects for Focus-type ventures, but that provides a real chance for more daring works to stand out. The responsibility falls to smaller entities divorced from corporate demands. Just last week, Cinema Guild picked up “Norte, the End of History,” Filipino director Lav Diaz’s four-hour-plus treatment of “Crime and Punishment” that turns the novel’s conceits into a brilliant metaphor for the onset of fascism. It remains to be seen how the company will make this sprawling cinematic achievement work in theaters — though perhaps the sheer allure of a temporally enhanced moviegoing experience can work in its favor — but the company’s willingness to give it a shot provides a telling contrast with the safer bets than all big companies must take.
This month alone, Kino Lorber releases two incredibly dour but terrific pieces of filmmaking: Jia Zhangke’s treatise against violence in China, “A Touch of Sin,” opens today; while no easy sell, it’s unquestionably one of the most memorable and craftily executed stories in theaters this year. Later this month, the company opens Bruno Dumont’s “Camille Claudel 1915,” a profoundly moving take on the emotional turmoil of the former Rodin lover (a spectacularly engaging Juliette Binoche) as she wastes her days away in a bleak asylum.
Another unconventional protagonist worth checking out hits theaters and video-on-demand next week with Tribeca Films’ release of “Zero Charisma,” a discomfiting portrait of a Dungeons and Dragons obsessive incapable of reconciling his hobby with the rest of the world. A sad character study disguised as a comedy, “Zero Charisma” makes the typical nerdy bros at the center of studio comedies look like pure fantasy. Yet the film is acutely accessible, pointing to the volume of movies that exist just outside the purview of general consumer awareness but deserve to pervade it.
Meanwhile, companies like Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Roadside Attractions and The Weinstein Company provide plenty of room to fill the void ostensibly created when the new iteration of Focus shifts gears. While Sony Classics continues to provide a safe haven for Woody Allen with his hugely profitable “Blue Jasmine,” Fox Searchlight has found another triumph in the seemingly non-commercial but nonetheless formidable Oscar contender “12 Years a Slave,” one of the best movies being released this year. IFC Films is taking a risk of its own with the lesbian drama “Blue is the Warmest Color.” Magnolia, which opens the hilarious ass-demon-as-workplace satire “Bad Milo!” this week, continues to offer a good home for genre fare with its Magnet label. And newer companies like Cinedigm and A24 continue to think big about bringing certain types of movies to audiences that would ordinarily never spend money on a challenging work of art.
Yet if all of these companies went the way of Focus, many of the best movies out there today would stick around. The concerned cinephile should turn to festival screenings and VOD to discover the gems unlikely to find any influential advocate with the capacity to release them widely. If it’s not a golden age for film distribution, there’s more product than ever. The process of discovery lies in the hands of the enterprising viewer rather than any financially-empowered curatorial vision. A world without Focus — not a world without Schamus, mind you — isn’t the same as a world without movies. The doom and gloom about the state of the business shouldn’t obscure the prevalence of cinema that will never fit studio equations because, thankfully, it plays by different rules altogether.