Focus Features Still Suffering Growing Pains at 15 (Studio Series)

Atomic Blonde (2017)Charlize TheronFocus Features

To say that Focus Features is one of the best and most respected indie distributors in the business is probably something of an understatement. In the 15 years since its creation — after a merger of USA Films, Universal Focus and Good Machine — it is responsible for some of the very best examples of what independent film is and can be. While the company is owned by Comcast (through the Universal Studios division of NBCUniversal), it’s similar to Fox Searchlight in that it is its own entity, with its own leadership and budgetary constraints.

It’s fair to examine the fact that, while Focus has been at the forefront of quality programming for years, there has been a subtle shift in the kind of fare they’ve been putting on screens recently. Yes, it is still behind projects like Loving, and The Danish Girl, and The Theory of Everything, but it’s also the company that put London Has Fallen on screens in 2016, as well as the Jesse Owens biopic Race, both of which feel much more like studio films than indie ones.

London and Race are also two of the reasons why the company scored almost $200 million in domestic grosses last year (the former did over $62 million, and cleared $200 mil worldwide on a $60 million budget, while the latter scored over $19 million at home and $25 mil overall). Its total of $196.5 million was 22 percent higher than the previous best, the $161.5 mil gathered in 2009, thanks primarily to a little film called Coraline.

coralineFocus Features

We’re going to get to Focus’ relationship with LAIKA Animation in due time, but first things first. While the company continues to put more esoteric projects into theaters, it has been slowly but surely making a move into those aforementioned bigger films. Horror franchises like Insidious and Sinister, which have combined for five installments thus far, with a fourth Insidious on the way next year. This is the domain of larger operations, not indie ones (with the possible exception of Dimension Films, back in the day).

This is why we get something like London Has Fallen, and in two days, Atomic Blonde, a movie that has many people as excited as any other movie on the summer schedule. This weekend’s Charlize Theron film only cost $30 million to make, but that’s not exactly the kind of movie that an indie company generally makes, even if it’s not actually fronting the bill. While Focus continues to release “important” films, its business model appears to be shifting towards the more commercial.

It’s tough to have one’s cake and eat it, too, but Focus is certainly trying. If you doubt it, look at the success of 2016 and, though the first seven months of 2017 have been the company’s worst since 2010, the list of upcoming releases is as impressive as anyone’s.

Not that everything Focus put into theaters last year was a smash. Far from it. A Monster Calls was a disaster ($3.4 million domestic), Loving was a disappointment ($7.7M), as was Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals ($10.6M). Consider that the last truly successful film Focus released was Kubo and the Two Strings, and since then it’s been on something of a cold streak. Yes, that seems paradoxical, but take a look. London Has Fallen and Kubo combined for over half of that domestic take, and the first one was released in March. Since nothing in the year’s final four months was a hit, and since this year’s first three releases — The Zookeeper’s Wife, The Beguiled, and The Book of Henry — have not exactly set the world on fire, that adds up to an odd slump.

That slump is about to come to an end, not just because of Atomic Blonde, but also the three movies expected before the end of the year. Each has a fantastic pedigree attached, as well as almost sure-fire Oscar talk. Starting September 22nd with Victoria and Abdul, in which director Stephen Frears once again teams up with Dame Judi Dench (back to getting her royalty on), for a story about the aging Queen Victoria’s unlikely friendship with a young Indian clerk named Abdul Karim. Frears is coming off last year’s Oscar-nominated Florence Foster Jenkins, and has directed Dench to two previous Best Actress nominations (for Mrs. Henderson Presents and Philomena). No reason to believe that the third time won’t be the charm, as well.

darkest hourFocus Features

Exactly two months later comes Darkest Hour, with Gary Oldman disappearing into the role of Winston Churchill during the peak of World War II. The movie from director Joe Wright — whose latest was Pan, which didn’t exactly fly to the same heights as Frears’ latest work — is already getting an insane amount of buzz for the actor, who has somehow only earned one previous nomination (for another Focus feature, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). Regardless of whether or not the movie itself is any good, expect the company to reap the benefits of all that buzz. If you doubt it, just go back six years to the truly awful The Iron Lady, which earned Meryl Streep her third acting Oscar for a brilliant performance in a lousy film that, by the way, was extremely profitable.

This is not to say expectations for Darkest Hour should be low, just that, if Oldman is as good as the buzz says he is, it probably won’t matter all that much.

Truly high hopes, though, are held out for the company’s Christmas Day release: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, starring Daniel Day-Lewis in what the actor says is his cinematic swan song. The period piece delves into the fashion world of 1950s London, where DDL’s dressmaker is commissioned to design for members of high society and the royal family. Now, PTA’s films aren’t exactly licenses to print money — the biggest grosser of his seven previous films is 2007’s There Will Be Blood, which did $40.2 million domestic and $76 million worldwide — but they are certainly awards magnets, and Day-Lewis’ recent announcement that this is his final film will probably bring in the curiosity factor, even if the story itself doesn’t scream commercial hit.

So, while 2017 has been less than grand for the company thus far, its prospects for the rest of the year are actually rather solid. Don’t be surprised if Blonde challenges Brokeback as the company’s all-time highest domestic grosser. All it has to do is clear $83 million, and it’s got the record, and with such a light August slate ahead, and little in the way of counter programming, it’s got a legitimate shot. One such success makes a year, and this one won’t be any different.

Move past that to the other three films and we return to the lesson that is learned year in and year out: awards talk leads to box office. If the expected domestic grosses of each of the three “important” movies is somewhere in the $20 million range, which is perfectly reasonable, each could be as much as doubled by Oscar nominations. That very quickly turns a disappointing year into a Top Five Winner.

The future looks pretty solid, too. There are already four movies on the slate for 2018, each of which carries with it a little gravitas. First up, in March, is the action pic Entebbe, about the Israeli raid on that Ugandan airport in 1976 to save a plane filled with hostages after they had been taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists, starring Rosamund Pike, Daniel Brühl, and Eddie Marsan. A month later comes the latest collaboration between director Jason Reitman, writer Diablo Cody, and star Charlize Theron, in Tully, a movie described as “a comedy about motherhood,” which means it has a built-in audience that will probably drive it to a pretty hefty gross, since there’s so little else out there for adult females.

young adultFocus Features

In May is the newest film from LAIKA, a movie still untitled and which has an under wraps plot, but this seems as good a place as any to point out the level of success the two companies have had in working together. Generally speaking, an animation house is going to create a partnership with a larger studio, but the LAIKA-Focus team has worked out rather well for both sides. The first LAIKA movie was Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, which came out in 2005 and was distributed by Warner Bros., but there have been four since, and all have come through Focus.

Coraline, in fact, is still the second highest domestic grossing film in the company’s history, with over $75 million at the box office in 2009. While each movie that has come out since — Paranorman in 2012, then The Boxtrolls in 2014 and last year’s Kubo — has declined in domestic grosses (and, in fact, lost money), they’re still adding to Focus’ grosses and market share, which we have learned does matter, especially when it comes to the purchasing of new product.

Which brings us to another point, that is the filling out of a 2018 slate after spending time at the film festivals in Venice, Telluride, Toronto, Park City, Austin, and others, as the festival season starts up in a few weeks. There is still one other film on next year’s slate — director Rupert Wyatt’s sci-fi thriller, Captive State, set for an August release — but expect that to get some company in the weeks and months to come. Likewise, Focus actually does develop and produce some of its own films, and it has plenty in some form of development, at least a half dozen in pre-production, and others that are filming (like Lenny Abrahamson’s Room follow up, The Little Stranger) and could very well find their way onto the 2018 schedule.

So if you take all that into account, things look pretty good for Focus Features, even though it has had a rough 12 months. If things shake out the way they very well could — and probably should, really — then that 12 months could end up being a sort of weird sandwich, surrounded as it would be by longer stretches of unqualified success.

Show business. There’s no business quite like it.

For more entries in our studio series, click here.

Neil Turitz 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.

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