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With Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman,’ Focus Features’ Strategy to Reinvent Its Roster Becomes Clear

Focus has figured out a specialty strategy that is working, at Cannes and beyond.

Spike Lee'BlacKkKlansman' photocall, 71st Cannes Film Festival, France - 15 May 2018

Spike Lee

James Gourley/REX/Shutterstock

Spike Lee soaked up the love at his exuberant “BlacKkKlansman” afterparty on the beach at Cannes. “It’s not comedy, it’s humor,” he reminded me. He knows he’s back in top form, returning to the glory days of “Do the Right Thing,” which 27 years ago memorably lost the Palme d’Or to “sex, lies and videotape.”

For any movie to turn out well is a “miracle,” Lee admitted at the Tuesday morning Cannes press conference. The project lined up perfectly. Under their Universal deals, “Get Out” producers Jason Blum and Jordan Peele worked with QC Entertainment to develop a memoir about how African-American Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. Peele considered directing it, but they decided to first try Spike Lee.

“If there’s a dream director to do this project, Spike’s the guy,” said Focus Features chairman Peter Kujawski at his Cannes office at the Carlton Hotel. “That collective of producers, including Jason, then went and had the conversation with Spike, who immediately read it and said, “Yep. I see what this can be.'”

After Lee did his pass, the producers sent the project to Focus. “It was a very, very easy and fast decision,” Kujawski said. “We said, ‘Hey, let’s do this.'”

From the script, Focus understood that Lee was “dealing with serious, important issues, and dealing with them in a way that Spike has uniquely built a voice and a career around … He doesn’t shy away from making an entertainment-forward version of the film, nor does he shy away from allowing the movie to become powerful, and somewhat incendiary, and an active statement on issues that a lot of people should be thinking about and discussing in today’s world.”

Spike Lee'BlacKkKlansman' premiere, 71st Cannes Film Festival, France - 14 May 2018

Spike Lee at “BlacKkKlansman” premiere, 71st Cannes Film Festival

David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

Focus will take the movie into the summer marketplace on August 10, on the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville riot that provides a coda for the film. Lee said he knew he would include it as soon as he watched it happen live on CNN.

“This is a movie for tuned-in and engaged people, not only in the U.S., but around the world,” said Kujawski. “We are dealing with a global political climate which seems to be emerging in somewhat threatening ways in many places.”

Does a summer release obviate an awards campaign? “Those things aren’t mutually exclusive,” said Kujawski. “‘Get Out’ came out last February. We want to be releasing great movies from top-notch artists 12 months a year. We as an industry — and particularly the specialty sector — in a very short-sighted way have allowed ourselves to be dominated by a belief where the fall season is the only time when you can release your ‘Oscar movies.’ If the movie is powerful, well-told, and great enough to emerge as an Oscar contender, it can do that from any time of the year.”

Peter Kujawski at Cannes

Two years after Kujawski took over the reins of the Universal specialty division, and a year after Sofia Coppola won Best Director at Cannes for “The Beguiled,” Focus is building momentum off a strong Oscar season led by Working Title’s “Darkest Hour” and “Victoria & Abdul” and Annapurna’s “Phantom Thread.” “Audiences enjoy the process of turning themselves over to an artist and their vision,” Kujawski said. “You need in that greenlight process an irrational exuberance around the artist and a degree of faith you put in them.”

Wim Wenders at Cannes

Focus is partnered with Universal Pictures International, led by Duncan Clark. “On top of the 12 a year that we do domestically, we have another probably 15 or so that we’re doing internationally,” Kujawski said, “whether it’s a revival, international rights on English-language movies, or doing home territories of local-language movies.”

Read More: Cannes Opener ‘Everybody Knows’ Goes to Focus Features

Partly due to its international business, Focus is upbeat about Cannes. They hit the festival running, ready to scoop up Asghar Farhadi’s likely Spanish-language Oscar-contender (either for Spain or Iran) “Everybody Knows” on opening night. (Their foot was in the door, having already nabbed rights in Spain.) “We were ready to pounce if we liked the movie as much as we believed we would,” said Kujawski. “Which we did.” Focus beat out Netflix for rights in U.S., Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, select Asian territories and the Middle East.

“Everybody Knows” not only boasts two major stars at their best — Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz — but is also an accessible kidnap thriller with a layer of dicey family secrets that bubble to the surface. The acquisitions team moved quickly, negotiating the deal with UTA’s Rena Ronson at the Cannes gala dinner.

Why did Focus land the movie against its deep-pocketed streaming rival? The theatrical experience is crucial.

“Certain filmmakers feel that’s an important part of the process for them, and for people to see it collectively together,” said Kujawski. “You felt it in the room at the Palais that night with one of the twist moments that comes out — a palpable, audible reaction. The offers that come from a streamer like Netflix can be awfully compelling. But, we have the nuance and the ability to fine-tune the campaign not just in terms of how we market, but the way you calibrate a theatrical release that exists over time, so it doesn’t just show up in the world all at once… You need that process of an evolution, and a growth, and an organic narrative that emerges about what the movie really is to audiences.”

Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem'Everybody Knows' photocall, 71st Cannes Film Festival, France - 09 May 2018

Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem at “Everybody Knows” Cannes photocall

James Gourley/REX/Shutterstock

Also playing Cannes out-of-competition is documentary “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” from three-time documentary Oscar nominee Wim Wenders (“The Buena Vista Social Club”), who films the Pontiff speaking directly to viewers in Spanish. The movie opens Friday after its Cannes launch.

There’s a large potential audience beyond Catholics, said Kujawski: “There’s an equally large audience of non-Catholics, maybe non-Christians, maybe non-believers who still will be interested in and benefit from having a spiritual point of view injected into conversations that they’re having about issues in the world today that the political leaders of today aren’t necessarily addressing in the most meaningful or beneficial ways. You hear a man who spent as much of his life thinking about spiritual health and well-being — it’s not limited to the Catholic perspective about what our relationship should be to life, and death, and family, and friends.”

In the Cannes market, Universal is a seller as well as a buyer around the world. “There’s activity on a number of great movies from great filmmakers are in the market,” he said. “Given the practical realities of what the movie business is these days, everyone needs to be thoughtful, and smart, and take their time. The era of ‘come in and take broad shots and scoop a bunch of things up because they’ll all work to some degree, and some of them might break out and make a bunch of money’ —that’s gone. Which means that there’s more caution and more thoughtfulness going into the process, so it might be a little bit slower. People taking their time and being thoughtful is okay.”

Upcoming Oscar Contenders

Every distributor in today’s challenged marketplace has to break through somehow. Thematically, many Focus movies share a mission of “direct cultural and social impact,” said Kujawski. “Others like ‘Phantom Thread’ are pushing the form of movies so hard and creating these beautiful amazing stories.”

The larger picture is that Focus and its main rival Fox Searchlight both celebrated two movies apiece that grossed over $50 million at the domestic box office. “All four of those movies were true global hits,” said Kujawski, “and both of us had big, fun, celebratory, Oscar nights.”

One certain documentary Oscar contender from Sundance 2018 is Morgan Neville’s Mr. Rogers weepie “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (June 8). The movie makes audiences reflect, said Kujawski. “It makes people want to be a better person.” Both the Pope Francis and Mr. Rogers movies are about “a real human connection, kindness, understanding and empathy.”

Focus’ fall lineup is strong, led by Joel Edgerton’s conversion therapy story “Boy Erased,” which he swiftly adapted from the book. Focus saw immediately “we were looking at a project [with] a true sense of mission,” said Kujawski. “The gay audience is still underserved at the cinema, and needs opportunities to have their stories told in a meaningful way… The story is the emotional threads that tied that family together. The journey they put [their child] through caused the family to pause, grow, evolve, and change perception. Sometimes you need to realize you’ve made mistakes along the way. That it’s you who needs to change, and not the person that you thought needed to change.”

Two fall films come from women filmmakers. “On the Basis of Sex” stars Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsberg. “Mimi Leder is able to tell the story in a way that becomes incredibly rousing and inspirational,” said Kukawski. “It is truly a real-life superhero origin story.”

“Mary, Queen of Scots”

Donmar Warehouse director Josie Rourke makes her debut with Working Title’s big-scale period royal drama “Mary Queen of Scots.” When they met her, Kujawski quelled his concerns about hiring a theater rookie. “Listen to what she’s saying and how precise this vision is, and how extremely tuned in to the nuance of the character relationship between Mary and Elizabeth,” he told himself. “The film is very much about today, and a world in which it is still a particular challenge that female leaders face from the world of men around them, and the belief and expectation of control that those men still have in those situations. Which they ultimately don’t and shouldn’t.”

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