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Why James Schamus Believes There's a Business in Very Low-Budget Features

Indiewire By Brian Brooks | Indiewire July 27, 2011 at 2:59AM

In May, Focus launched the first annual Story Camp. Conceived by Focus CEO James Schamus, Story Camp is designed to bring something rarely seen to Focus' development slate: Filmmakers with projects budgeted under $1 million. There's no application process or specific qualifications; participation is by invitation only.
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Brian Brooks Former Focus Features CEO James Schamus.

In May, Focus launched the first annual Story Camp. Conceived by Focus CEO James Schamus, Story Camp is designed to bring something rarely seen to Focus' development slate: Filmmakers with projects budgeted under $1 million. There's no application process or specific qualifications; participation is by invitation only.

Similar to Focus' four-year-old short films initiative, Africa First, Story Camp is a three-day laboratory and workshop for six emerging filmmakers and producers.

Story Camp's inaugural filmmakers and projects are writer/director (and Africa First alumna) Jenna Bass with her Cape Town-set supernatural tale "Tok Tokkie," writer/director Damien Chazelle and his L.A.-set musical romance "So Long, Jupiter," writer/director Janus Metz with an untitled NYC-set thriller of sexual identity; writer/director Daniel Mulloy and immigrant drama "A Cold Day," writer/director Sasie Sealy, with her online-themed thriller "SarahN_12"; and the U.K.-set youth gang drama "Grass," written by Malachi Smyth and to be directed by Tom Green.

indieWIRE sat down with Schamus and got his take on why, after 10 years in business, he wanted Focus Features to get into ultra low-budget feature filmmaking.


You Have to Adapt

We're doing well, but one of the reasons we are is that you can't sit around and do the same thing; you have to adapt. We haven't been big players in the American independent acquisitions game. We've operated on the [proviso] that if we're going to win or lose, we'll do it with movies we've put together primarily. So we'll acquire at festivals, but as I like to say, we'll show up at festivals already having had dinner, but if we want to have dessert, we will.

The vast majority of our slates are conceived and executed for global exploitation. We can hold films in key territories, but everything we get involved in has to have in some way an international constituency. Even a film that could look modest here [in the U.S.] can be a wildly huge win for us when you open up the box.

But that has kept us somewhat removed from emerging talent, domestic and even international. The center of our business will always revolve around mature filmmakers. It's hard for to rationalize a lot of what goes on [at festivals] from a business perspective for us, even though they are often our favorite movies.

Part of the reason for the creation of Story Camp was to break down some of those walls and take a look at the fact that lower-budget aesthetics are getting more mainstream. At the same time, lower-budget aesthetics don't always mean crappy aesthetics. Production value, however you define it these days, means you can make movies that look pretty darn good for not so much money. So there's different forms of storytelling available to filmmakers today than just a few years ago.

We also have an extraordinary core of young executives at Focus whose culture is linked to independent cinema. I'm sure there's some frustration because they [usually] have to see all these great films at festivals and say, "Well, maybe on your third film we can do something."

An Independent Film Economy

At the same time, I've always wanted to fight against the flipside of that. You go to Sundance -- not picking on Sundance, but it's at the center of American independent culture -- and there aren't a lot of old hands that show up. It's always about discovery and the next new thing. And the next new thing immediately becomes the next big thing, and that means those filmmakers won't be coming back to Sundance because he or she will be sucked into some system that takes them to something bigger and better.

It would be nice, if it would be possible, to configure an independent film economy in which a real independent career could be had within the "independent zone" and not feel as if you needed to go from independent to specialized and then to studio stuff. I don't buy that as a natural career path. I wish the Olivier Assayases of the world could do their own thing and have careers in that space. There is now an obligation among us at Focus to create the possibility of a viable sphere of doing business on that end, but we really have to work on it.

Matthew Plouffe (Focus), David Horler (Producer), Jenna Bass (W/D), Kisha Cameron-Dingle (Producer) with their project "Tok Tokkie" at Focus' inaugural Story Camp. Image courtesy Focus Features.

We've never been in this space ourselves. If we can think of how to make it work and make it viable on its own and not simply just as a stepping stone, even better. People may individually have their own ambitions and plans, and that's great. But if we can say this is a space that has activity and revenue and make it work, then it's an option for filmmakers.

We're Not the NEA

This is not a talent contest that somehow resulted in selection. Our executives are at festivals, getting to know producers who are working with emerging talent. They came in with a group of projects at various stages of development. Some hadn't been written yet, others had screenplays with third or fourth revisions and almost ready for pre-production. There was no application process. It's probably going to stay a cyclical process in which the team will fan out every six to nine months and meet producers and see who they're working with. I think having that layer of curatorial and entreprenuerial engagement is important. We're not the NEA. The six we're working with now are a diverse, American and international group.

One of our participants comes from Africa First. Three are American. Their deals were essentially the same. They're across-the-board low-budget union deals. Most everyone has done something significant, be it a short or even a feature. In the case of Lars [Knudsen] and Jay [Van Hoy], they're not really beginners.

It's not going to be about us giving speeches on how to do things, but a conversation about how we can change things and how we can be a part of it. We believe they collectively have the ability to make their movies, whether we we're there or not. We may eventually make all six [together], or we may make none. There's no competition here, nobody's being voted off the island. Development is development.

We cannot fill up our entire slate with all low-budget movies, but we can stagger this process. There's a generous turnaround and we're not going to put handcuffs on people. If we don't end up making them, then it's an expedited process in which people can go elsewhere. It's not like a studio arrangement in which the provisions are extremely limiting. Our philosophy is that whatever happens, we still want to see these movies done.

These films are all targeted to be under a million dollars, but there's a lot of variation within that. I mean, look, if some mega movie star decides to attach to it, then the budget may change, but we've asked people to conceive of anything in their projects that wouldn't break the million-dollar mark. This is not charity, it's business. My feeling is, I give at home. I think the nicest thing we can do with filmmakers is not to treat them as charity cases. Charity is great, but solidarity is even better.

For us, it's also about a change in culture. One of the things I hate is when I hear something like, "Well, at Focus, we do dot, dot, dot..." And I say, "No, we don't." [laughs] I mean, there are a lot of things we don't do and there should be a culture at a company, but there shouldn't be a "way of doing things."

I don't want to overhype that we're getting fully into the low-budget thing. Again, we may make all of these or none of these. But no matter what happens, for everyone who has participated in this, including my team, we'll have something great to come out of this.

Focus is already planning its next Story Camp, but there's no application process. However, there is a list of the executives responsible for recruiting the filmmakers and their projects. They are: Focus' executive vice president of international production Teresa Moneo; coordinator of European production Kieran Clayton; creative executive Christopher Kopp; director of production & acquisitions Samantha Taylor Pickett; director of production Matthew Plouffe.

Additional Focus execs who took part in Story Camp were executive vice president, physical production Jane Evans; president of production John Lyons; executive vice president, business affairs Howard Meyers; and senior vice president, post-production Jeff Roth.

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit