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Universal Rejiggers Its Specialty Division Again

Universal Rejiggers Its Specialty Division Again

Submitting to the inevitable—that replacing Focus Features CEO James Schamus with Peter Schlessel was an experiment that never gelled—Universal Pictures is merging Focus with its Universal Pictures International Productions (UPIP). The idea seems to be that specialty production and acquisitions are a global enterprise, and combining resources will fashion a stronger entity able to leverage Universal’s worldwide distribution machine with local language and English-language production and territorial acquisitions around the world.

Current Managing Director of UPIP Peter Kujawski, who started as Schamus’s assistant at Good Machine and moved from Focus to UPIP, is now the new Chairman of the global Unit, with London-based UPIP Co-Managing Director Robert Walak as President (a grad of the Weinstein Co., and UK’s Momentum), and Universal Pictures’ Executive Vice President of Film Strategy Abhijay Prakash as Chief Operating Officer. Schlessel will exit April 1. 

Focus will continue its specialty marketing and distribution operations and domestic release patterns, with LA-based Adriene Bowles staying on as President of Publicity and Executive Vice President of Marketing along with FilmDistrict distribution exec Jim Orr. Focus has done well in the Oscar arena with such films as “Dallas Buyers Club,” “The Theory of Everything” and this year’s “The Danish Girl,” both from Working Title. Recognizing that by adding Film District’s content and Schlessel’s genre taste to Focus, the brand had become muddled, Universal recently revived the Gramercy label for that product. But now, Universal is absorbing genre fare into its own main slate, leaving specialty to Focus. That was never Schlessel’s strong suit. 
Schlessel aimed to broaden Focus by expanding its film slate to include a greater number of both specialty and wide-release genre fare. Schlessel wasted no time reconfiguring two distributors, FilmDistrict and Focus, into one. By insisting on shutting down the Focus New York branch, he lost several valuable executives including Focus COO Andrew Karpen, who was asked to stay on, but raised financing to start a rival distributor, Bleecker Street Films, which has fared well. 

Before he leaves, Schlessel will oversee the release of the division’s upcoming releases of “Race,” “London Has Fallen” and “The Young Messiah.” His management team, Focus COO Adrian Alperovich, Marketing President, Christine Birch and President of Acquisitions, Lia Buman will also exit Focus Features in April. 

“This move further demonstrates our commitment to both the specialty space and the international production and acquisition businesses,” said Langley.  “By aligning these product lines and bringing them closer to the studio, Focus will be able to take advantage of a wealth of resources – maximizing its opportunity for success. The management team we’ve assembled is a seasoned specialty team that will be charged with both sharpening our product mix and building a premier global specialty brand.”
This move suggests that Universal and other studios are rethinking their commitment to the non-tentpole business, thus ceding ground to a few still-vital independent distributors as well as Netflix and Amazon, who have deep pockets and a healthy appetite for content.  It will be revealing to watch how the the various players behave at Berlin and Cannes.

Of the studio specialty divisions, only Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics and Focus are left, but its future as a specialty unit are in doubt. Paramount hangs on to the Vantage label which is managed by the studio. Warner Bros. closed Warner Independent and Picturehouse, which was taken over by Jeanne and Bob Berney as a much smaller indie before he went to join Good Machine co-founder Ted Hope at Amazon Studios. MGM’s United Artists label is also gone. Closing the New York Focus office leaves only six major indie distributors based there: SPC, Weinstein Co., IFC, A24, Bleecker and Magnolia. 

What is so dismaying, whenever this happens, is that it takes years to build a well-functioning distribution machine—and the experienced people who make it sing—and only seconds to dismantle it. 

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