If there is an ideal situation for a film company to inhabit, it would probably be some sort of self-sufficiency combined with the infrastructure of a larger operation. A company that can make its own films and purchase others for distribution without having to deal with corporate oversight, while that same corporation helps it get its projects into theaters all over the world.
Basically, the exact situation Focus Features has.
As it happens, earlier this year, Focus actually merged with Universal Pictures International to create a much stronger operation and allow the indie a great measure of reach, one that few other companies of similar size possess. It allows them to put out larger projects that others might not, such as London Has Fallen, this year’s top earner for the company and a movie that cleared $62 million domestic and over $195 million worldwide. True, Focus didn’t finance the project, but it still had the wherewithal to get it onto 3,500 screens its opening weekend.
Not really the kind of thing that, say, an Oscilloscope Laboratories can do. Or even a Bleecker Street.
In fact, it’s partly thanks to London Has Fallen that, in the final week of July, the company is on its way to the best year in its history. Since 2000, the company has cleared $100 million in domestic grosses 10 times, with a high of $161.5 million in 2009. So far in 2016, Focus is already at $130.2 million, which would make it the fourth best year in the company’s history, and that’s after just seven months. More than half of that comes from London, but a good chunk comes from the horror movie The Forest, as well as the Jesse Owens biopic Race.
With five months left in 2016, the company has plans to release at least five more films, which would be just the third time in its history it has put as many as 10 films into theaters in a given year. I say at least five, because that’s how many films it has with firm release dates between now and the end of December, but there are two others that are still up in the air. Bastille Day, a thriller starring Idris Elba, was briefly pulled from foreign theaters after the terror attack in Nice, but could still find its way to domestic screens. The other is Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness, which is tentatively set for the second half of August.
The first thing that is firmly set on the schedule arrives in three weeks, with LAIKA Studio’s latest animated tale, Kubo and the Two Strings, hits screens. If Kubo does the $60 million the three previous LAIKA films (Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls) have averaged for the company, that alone will get Focus within sniffing distance of $200 million for the very first time. The rest of the year is similarly rife with impressive possibilities, with several potential awards hopefuls and at least one film with such spectacular buzz preceding it, there’s already talk of multiple Oscar nominations in its future.
In September, Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow makes a return to his indie roots with The Book of Henry, then, five weeks later, comes J.A. Bayona’s YA fantasy A Monster Calls. November brings two movies, both of which are awards hopefuls. First is Tom Ford’s second film, Nocturnal Animals, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer and Laura Linney, making it one of the most impressive casts of any movie coming out this year. Two weeks later, the week before Thanksgiving, comes the historical drama about Virginia’s first interracial marriage, Loving, from rising star director Jeff Nichols and starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, both of whom are already being touted as serious Oscar contenders. Both films, in fact, have the potential to be the kind of low budget sleeper hits that arise every year and end up making big box office after word of mouth and great critical response. Both films cost roughly $10 million, which means the upside is tremendous.
Each of the last nine years, Focus has released at least one movie that has been nominated for some kind of Oscar, and has had an actual winner in six of them (last year, for instance, it was The Danish Girl, for which Alicia Vikander won a Supporting Actress trophy). There’s no reason to believe that this year will be any different, and what have we learned about awards talk and Oscar nominations? That’s right, it leads to big box office, which means that grosses of as much as $250 million this year are extremely realistic.
Interestingly, this comes under the aegis of new CEO Peter Kujawski (above left), who took over the role immediately after Focus merged with Universal Pictures International back in March. But, while Kujawski gets to oversee this potentially record-shattering year, a good deal of the credit needs to go to Peter Schlessel (above right), who ran the show for the previous two years, both of which saw over $100 million in domestic grosses and left the job on April 1st. Now, Kujawski gets to run with this lineup of films while also leveraging Universal’s distribution apparatus to, in the words of a studio statement upon the announcement of the move, “become more closely aligned with the studio’s global strategy.”
What that means is that, with Focus’ marketing and distribution operations in place, the company will keep releasing the same number of films, but will be able to get them into more screens all over the globe, which is not something most indie distributors can say. Now, it’s true that three of the studio’s five releases thus far this year have had negligible foreign grosses, but considering how well London Has Fallen and The Forest did worldwide, it’s clear that system is paying some rewards.
As with most indie players, looking ahead is always tough. There are just four movies with firm dates on the schedule: an untitled Blumhouse horror film on February 3rd; The Zookeeper’s Wife, director Niki Caro’s followup to her 2015 sleeper hit McFarland, USA, starring Jessica Chastain and Daniel Bruhl, hitting theaters on March 31st; and The Coldest City, from John Wick co-director David Leitch. That movie, starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, and Sofia Boutella, hits theaters next August 11th. The big fish is the fourth chapter in the ongoing, and very lucrative, horror franchise Insidious, coming out right before Halloween, but then there are also the World War Two drama Alone in Berlin (with Bruhl, Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson) and the Bible film Mary Magdelene (with Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix and Chiwetel Ejiofor), both of which should see the inside of theaters some time next year. That very quickly brings the likely total to seven, which is close to the number of films the company would put out in a standard year. Still, with festivals like Toronto, Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca all in the months ahead, there is every chance that the company will open its check book to fill out its 2017 slate.
In the meantime, it’s pretty safe to say that, with a solid horror series like Insidious, its relationship with animation house LAIKA, the fact that it’s a consistent distributor of Oscar-friendly movies, its partnership with Universal and, on top of it all, what should be the best year in the company’s history, it feels like a pretty good time to be Focus Features.
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Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades in the independent film world and writing about Hollywood. Aside from being a screenwriter/director and Tracking Board columnist, he is also a senior editor at SSN Insider.