Fall 2009

Independent Thinker

James Schamus, chief executive officer of Focus Features and producer and/or writer of all of Ang Lee’s films, looks at the specialty film business and sees a world in flux.

1. The definition of independent films seems to have become blurred in recent years. What do you think an independent film is today?

I don’t use the term much myself. We are a specialty film company. By that I mean we make movies that are not for everybody. So if I make a movie that isn’t wildly disliked, or at least avoided, by a large portion of the human population, I’ve failed at my job.

2. You’ve doggedly limited your budgets to the $20 million range. Do you think that’s what makes sense in today’s market?

I think that it makes sense for us because it allows us to keep our identity, keep our way of working and keep a certain level of freedom for our filmmakers. We are also quite different from the other specialized independent companies in that our efforts have always been global. This year we’re going to be making at least three movies in Italy and three in France. These are films that will be released in those territories and maybe outside of them...

3.  Is the art of film about the creative vision of the director?

Well this corner of the film business is unabashedly auteurist. We have enormous amounts of investment and respect in producers. And we love writers. But we really love directors. We think of them as the anchor for the kind of films that we make. Sometimes there are tussles and discussions and shared ideas. But at the end of the day, we’re very pleased that in eight years every single movie we’ve released has been something that our directors have been proud to stand by.

4. How do you approach working with first-timers?

There is no formula. Some folks really have a target to hit and have a very specific way of working and just need the surround and the support, and other folks really enjoy the give-and-take that the team can give them. Everybody comes to that first feature with a very different set of experiences and aspirations. It gives you a real sense of excitement and purpose when you do it. Ang Lee was a first-time director when I first started working with him.

5. You’ve worked with Ang Lee on 11 films as a producer and/or a writer. What has that taught you about working with directors?

Being a director basically entails answering about 1,000 to 2,000 questions a day. What color should the wallpaper be? Or, should I use a 50 mm lens on this shot? And it can literally become, at its worst, an overwhelming tidal wave of discrete decisions that don’t connect. As a producer, I love to be able to be that person who brings Ang some ability to step away from that kind of pressure and say, ‘Hey, is this really what you want? Does this make sense? Is this an appropriate use of the resources, or should we move them over here?’ So I always say that my job is just creating the context for making sure he has the appropriate resources and the team with the right spirit he can trust to bounce ideas against.

6. For a young director with a vision but no reputation, it’s a pretty tough road nowadays, isn’t it?

Yeah, it sure is. These days the complexity of financing in the independent sector is matched only by the decrease in available capital. The silly money left town and the money that’s left is much more difficult to negotiate and secure. The good news is that for those who are extremely adventurous and just starting out, there are $4,000 digital cameras and desktop editing systems. You’re seeing a whole generation of people making movies for $7,000-$10,000. And we pay a lot of attention to those folks.

7.  You once said jokingly that we’re not in the business of making movies, that movies subsidize an ad campaign for the DVD.

That wasn’t a joke. And unfortunately here’s the punch line: The ancillaries are starting to transform—and that’s putting it happily. What’s really happening is that the value chain associated with the various windows is morphing to a digital world, and all those windows are starting to morph into each other and nobody has yet figured out the economics of that. I don’t think anybody can claim that the economics of what’s coming is necessarily going to match what we’ve relied on to date. So we are going into uncharted territory. I’m hopeful it’ll be transformational and eventually positive, but I also think there’s going to be a fair amount of pain forthcoming.

8. How important do you think maintaining the integrity of the theatrical release is?

I think there is always going to be a place for the theatrical experience. Whether that place is the first window or not for every kind of movie, I don’t know. Right now I’m in the business of maintaining the unique quality of that experience and its timeliness because the economics of our business require that we do that as well as we possibly can. When you take the shelf life off the first window, theatrical, we don’t know exactly what that does to the value chain.

9. Are you concerned about the impact of Internet piracy on specialty films?

Yes, for the film business as a whole because it impacts the value of all the ancillaries. You need only look at territories like Spain to understand that the entire economic rationale behind the business has been pretty much hollowed out there. So if that gets reproduced in too many other territories, there goes the entire margins of our business.

10. You’ve worked as a studio executive, producer, and screenwriter. Do you have any desire to direct yourself?

No. I always say that the directing thing is kind of a disease that often hits middle-aged producers. A lot of writers, editors and other people come to the business and realize they can contribute as directors. Producers, well the jury’s out on that one. [laughs] Look, I finish writing a script and I get to ask the following question: Do I want James Schamus to direct it or Ang Lee to direct it? A pretty easy question to answer when you put it that way.

10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.

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