What, then, of the future of Indiewood, in the shape of the studio speciality divisions, now that Universal’s Focus Features has become the latest target for what looks like studio rationalisation? The news that James Schamus has been removed as head of the division and the closure of its New York office looks like another significant reduction of commitment to speciality work within the studio orbit. It’s particularly notable given how successful and stable Focus had appeared to be, alongside Fox Searchlight, as one of the two main remaining planks of this hybrid territory.
Focus isn’t being closed, like some speciality divisions were in the major contraction that began in 2008. But these look like they could become steps along that route, or moves towards a considerably more commercial and less specialist-market oriented approach. The signals are very strong ones. The removal of Schamus appears to be a major blow to those invested in the indie tradition, given his status as one of the former heads of the almost-legendary Good Machine, and his record of established relationships with major indie filmmakers. The closure of a New York operation is also more than just a practical cut back – a relocation of the headquarters to Los Angeles also signifies a reduction in autonomy and closer absorption into the studio landscape.
Schames is replaced by Peter Schlessel, head of the distributor FilmDistrict, the associations of which are largely with more mainstream-oriented genre productions, a point emphasized in initial reactions to the news. Indiewire’s Anthony Kaufman concludes that “you can bet that the mid-sized art film is in more trouble than it already was”, adding in reference to Schlessel: ‘Yes, he can claim ownership of driving Nicholas Winding Refn’s bang-up noir “Drive” into the marketplace, but much of the company’s slate is heavily geared towards genre titles (“Red Dawn”, “Parker”, “Dean Man DOwn”, “Olympus has Fallen” – all yuck).’
In typically rhetorical style, Schamus’s former Good Machine partner Ted Hope suggests that: ‘With his bow tie no longer the Focus brand, we can firmly say that the corporate suits see no business in art.’ He adds: ‘Where does James’ exit leave us? Sure we have Sony Picture Classics. Won’t we always have Sony Picture Classics (thank the cinema gods!!!)? And we have Searchlight and The Weinsteins, sure… at least for now. And yes, there are the VOD driven entities, and the small true indies too, but do we have a corporate culture that has any place for ambitious artistically driven work? I think not –at least not as the focus of their strategy.’
But was it ever accurately described as the focus of the strategy of corporate culture? Of course not. The question here is of the existence of some degree of space for speciality/indie ‘art’ type cinema within the broader orbit of the studios – a position in which it has never been more than a small minority strand. The removal of Schamus and relocation of Focus to LA does appear to constitute a potentially significant reduction of such space, but it’s not best put in such black and white terms as those used by Hope if we’re really to understand the nature of the equation that’s involved, one that seems to be subject to periodic shifts of balance that are sometimes hard to keep up with. It’s somewhat frustrating to me, personally, I have to confess, that this happens just as my new book Indie 2.0 is about to be published, in which I suggest that suggestions that the studios have withdrawn from the speciality sector have been exaggerated, largely on the basis of the continued thriving presence of Focus and Searchlight.
It will remain to be seen exactly what happens to Focus from now onwards. Variety reports that its future had been looking ‘very murky’ before the 2011 takeover of its parent, NBC-Universal, by Comcast: ‘Universal Pictures had planned on putting the distrib on the sales block but reversed course when Comcast chairman-CEO Brian Roberts, a well-known fan of independent film, said he wanted to keep the operation in the fold.’ That’s encouraging, but perhaps not the basis for a long-term future. We’ll see. But what Kaufman terms ‘the mid-sized art film’ is not going to disappear, we can be sure of that. It’s often seen as an endangered species but has a habit of demonstrating longevity, even if often in an embattled state, whether in the territory of speciality divisions or from within the studios themselves – the latter being the subject of my current book-in-progess, previously mentioned in this blog, on the nature and status of ‘quality’ film in Hollywood.