Focus Features Is Crumbling, And This Saddens Me

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
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Focus Features Is Crumbling, And This Saddens Me

Let me just preface that I am not a Hollywood business guy, nor do I possess any expertise or insight into the subject of how all this stuff works. But, I do pay close attention to which boutique labels release what kind of film. So consider this a brief commentary on just how much a film logo popping up on the big screen can stir up pleasurable endorphins (and also as a lament towards the current state of the specialty divisions of Hollywood Studios).

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Miramax Logo popped up on screen, it was a signifier of a certain kind of adult film, well at the very least a film for adults -- often a foreign import to the local art house or repertory cinema. The Weinstein brothers certainly made some waves for both their mini-mogul personalities as well as their particular method of buying and distributing films. They were eventually acquired by Disney's corporate parent and they became the art house division of a major conglomerate, a move that provided the perception of a new market space, and subsquently kicked off the mid-1990s 'indie' boom.  Steven Soderbergh, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino and The Coen Brothers became a new generation of movie-brat directors working with adult material and smashing genres into oblivion. And they were getting their films released by an autonomous and well funded branch of a major studio.

Every studio wanted their own Miramax. Many were formed from acquisitions of the bits and pieces of the independent landscape or, through some hefty spending, simply created wholecloth. They were  Paramount Vantage, Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, and, I suppose, New Line Cinema; although the latter was, for the most part, Freddy Krueger, Blade and Hobbits.
Of these, all but two of them in fact, are now defunct. And yet Focus Features, the one formed by Universal by buying up many small outfits in the late 1990s: Gramercy Pictures, October Films, and Good Machine and putting them all under the care of auspices James Schamus, a bow-tied film historian and Ang Lee's regular screenwriter (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Ice Storm and Hulk amongst others) was the best of the bunch. 

Miramax, in short order, became drunk on its own Oscar hubris and started producing bloated mega-pictures like The English Patient, All The Pretty Horses and Gangs of New York to name a few. Meanwhile, Focus Features was gearing up, and going after stranger, edgier and smarter titles than even the 1980s era Miramax ever was. Early features included Being John Malkovich, In The Mood For Love (when it was called USA Films) as well as Lost in TranslationEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Broken Flowers and Brick.  
From 2002 until just this October, under Schamus' watch, the Focus Features logo was almost always an indicator of quality thoroughbred entertainment one could receive in a multiplex. As a more ScreenAnarchy-y side-tangent, Focus Features' genre subdivision, Rogue Pictures (which was passed on to another company in 2009) was equally up to snuff and yielded the first two films of Edgar Wright's Cornetto Trilogy, as well as one of Jet Li's best non-Chinese films, Danny The Dog, and culty favourites The Perfect Getaway, Doomsday and The Strangers.
Sure, if you know where to look, or what festivals to go to, there will always be excellent films, but it was certainly nice to have a bonafide business-side curator getting them out to be seen on the big screen, and be part of both cinephile and casual movie-goer conversation. Focus Features was a pretty major bridge, and while it is still chugging along in its downsized form in Los Angeles, the fact that it has closed its New York, and now London, offices and jettisoned its auteur CEO all in the past few months seems to be a sign, a harbinger that the quality and eclectic curation of this particular company is likely to be seriously diminished.
Currently, Jean Marc Valleé's Dallas Buyers Club is being put out by the company, that film is a solid enough biopic featuring a couple of notable performances and an occasional transcendent moment, but the company's upcoming slate is not really worth getting excited about:  50 Shades of Grey and the Gerard Butler starring London Has Fallen is an indicator of a free-fall in terms of cinematic taste.  In order, however, to allow this piece to go out on a celebratory note, as Focus heads full into irrelevance, here are some of the films that Focus Features made accessible to regular film goers over the past decade and a bit:
The Pianist, Eastern Promises, Be Kind Rewind, Coraline, Burn After Reading, In Bruges The Limits of Control, A Serious Man, ParaNorman, Moonrise Kingdom, Hannah, Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, Thirst, and The World's End.
As someone who likes this kind of sweet spot between Studio and Indie - as hard as Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics may try, they have simply been less consistent in the sum quality of their releases - I just wanted to lament the passing of an era.

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tomhaggasNovember 6, 2013 10:43 PM

I'm with you, Kurt. Focus Features was rocksteady until recently. For me, Eternal Sunshine will always be their crowning achievement. I put this up on our podcast's fan page to start the discussion over there. A really great piece. Thanks.

Shelagh M. Rowan-LeggNovember 7, 2013 5:07 AM

Agreed, excellent piece. It's getting harder and harder for that kind of mid-level budget film to find distribution, and this is going to make it worse.

Patrick R.November 7, 2013 5:06 PM

This was an awesome piece. I remember, when I was first getting into indie and arthouse cinema in middle school/high school, the Focus Features logo/title card was always a signifier of something great. I miss that time...

The RisingNovember 8, 2013 10:22 AM

Fewer and fewer 'films' will be made in favor of more and more 'products', remakes and pre-packaged Epics. It's the death of American film.

Jason GrayNovember 8, 2013 10:31 AM

Good article, Kurt.

Andrew JamesNovember 9, 2013 7:52 AM

I now see the Pathe logo and get that fuzzy feeling.

cjohnstonNovember 13, 2013 3:08 PM

Great article! :')

cjohnstonNovember 13, 2013 3:10 PM

I do have a few EXCEPTIONAL recommendations closely tied to "Pathe" and its little mobile..
Give me a shout if you'd like me to enumerate the titles for you.LOL

mightyjoeyoungNovember 22, 2013 11:03 AM

"Focus Features was a pretty major bridge, and while it is still chugging along in its downsized form in Los Angeles, the fact that it has closed its New York, and now London, offices and jettisoned its auteur CEO all in the past few months seems to be a sign, a harbinger that the quality and eclectic curation of this particular company is likely to be seriously diminished."

I had no idea, that things was this bad, well......everything must come to an end, thanks Mr Halfyard.

KurtJune 1, 2017 1:14 PM

A quick check-in. Focus has more or less fully MERGED with Universal Pictures and is just a distribution arm both domestically and globally. It's nice, however, that the quality has been on the upswing after a rather spotty four year stretch since this article was published..

Consider the slate of the past 6 months: Kubo and the Two Strings, American Honey, Loving, Nocturnal Animals, A Monster Calls & The Zookeeper's Wife.