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As Schamus Moves On, Let’s Tie One On (A Bowtie That Is…)
I don’t think we can get a clearer marker that times have fully changed in the Film Biz than James Schamus leaving Focus Features. And this is a curve that is not in a positive direction.
With his bow tie no longer the Focus brand, we can firmly say that the corporate suits see no business in art. James made money from beauty, found gold by reaching higher, filled the banks with quality, and showed us the profit from doing the right thing. And the Film Business now says that is no room for something and someone that is not only a well-oiled money-making machine but that truly is a good machine. And yes, the loss of Schamus should shame us…
James showed us all that there was business in art. He showed us that it could be done and could be done consistently and predictably. With Schamus axed, I know we are now firmly living in the land of Bizarro World, where our strengths are our weaknesses, and the pursuit of our love distances us further from our passion. We have given in fully to the bottom line, dug our selves into a hole without a paddle to make our bed.
I met James at a coffee shop in the East Village after Janet Grillo suggested we might have some stuff in common. We didn’t have much, but we had the essentials, and that was a wonderful thing. He wore a bow time then, and carried an obscure French novel. My t-shirt was ripped and I didn’t have a dime in my pocket. We both loved movies, all kinds of movies, and knew that others, like us, were not defined by the demographic they were pigeon holed in. We were living in a time when there were underserved audiences that were easy to reach and corporate culture ignored. And that was long before the internet.
Schamus and I formed Good Machine together around the concept that by making films for less money than others did, we could actually make more ambitious films; that by making films for those that were not the mainstream audience, we could connect deeper & easier with that audience; and that by making films with a specific voice and focus they would be more universal (;-)). We soon recognized that although the art, audience, and even the business had all changed, the industry was still doing what they always had done, what was easy and most doable. We built a producer-led, director-driven, international sales-focused film company committed to putting relationships and quality first — and it worked, both well and for good.
At Focus, James was able to refine the Good Machine model into something corporate culture could understand and profit from. He built great teams and kept them together. He had a system that was predictable and profitable. Although I would have liked to see a bit more risk and innovation, he didn’t shy away from it either. Both the audience and the filmmakers grew to know what a Focus Film was, even if they did not yet know how to explain it. It was a home where they would push your work as fully as they could to as many as they could, where the hope was to maximize potential, and not just take the easy route.
Our entire business and culture has opted for what is simply doable and easy. We are corrupt and have lost ambition.
I have generally marveled how James was the opposite of most corporate titans. You hear stories of CEOs dreaming to write their novel or screenplay, but James was the artist who read management books for pleasure, the screenwriter who dreamed of a corporate life. He was a true radical ensconced in an office suite, seeing spreadsheets as poetry, and marketing strategies as possible revolutions. I truly hope now free of his golden chains, he lets his freak flag fly — but of course always with his bow tie on tied on a bit too tight. Maybe today we should all don that same sartorial splendor, and wear a bow to reflect the blow that this loss means for us all?
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.
The instincts that drove me to take a hiatus from producing a year ago are being reinforced by the way Schamus’ door has swung. If we don’t focus on building a better infrastructure to support diverse works of the highest aspiration, we will come to lose that aspect of our culture. Surely all can see the haven that the non-profit world has provide filmmakers like Ryan Coogler and Ben Zeitlin. You would think that the model provided by the San Francisco Film Society would be something others would look to replicate. We need to focus on building a sustainable investor class for ambitious cinema. We can’t expect others to do it for us.
Does the firing of James, Focus’ abandonment of NYC mean we are now in the third stage of a necessary indie infrastructure build? First the Sundance Institute became the prime stop in developing quality films; they are probably in some responsible for 25 or more produced scripts per year being better than they otherwise would. Then along with Sundance, the San Francisco Film Society, Tribeca Foundation, Cinereach, and many other non-profit organizations stepped in to help make sure that great work got funded. Does the third wave now, with the untying of the Schamus bow, need to be that non-profits pick up both the marketing and distributing slack? How else will diverse and ambitious cinema be able to unlock the promise that still hides inside the greatest art form ever created?
I am sure he is getting job offers galore, but I would love nothing more than for James to become my partner once again, only this time at the San Francisco Film Society. We can build a good machine to make indie film better for all. After all, he did love the Bay so much that he got three degrees from Berkley, egghead that he is.