g The Film Panel Notetaker: IFP's Script to Screen Conference - Conversation with James Schamus - March 7, 2009

Monday, March 09, 2009

IFP's Script to Screen Conference - Conversation with James Schamus - March 7, 2009

Conversation with Keynote James Schamus – CEO, Focus Features
March 7, 2009
New York, NY

(Scott Macaulay & James Schamus. Photo by Brian Geldin.)

Focus Features CEO James Schamus makes his second appearance here at The Film Panel Notetaker (his first being at the Woodstock Film Festival last fall) with my notes taken in a packed hall at the New York Film Academy Saturday morning during IFP's Script to Screen Conference, which was created to help aspiring and working screenwriters explore new opportunities. Filmmaker Magazine Editor-in-Chief Scott Macaulay moderated Saturday’s conversation with Schamus. The discussion moved a bit beyond the script writing process, so here I will focus (bah dump bump) on the elements of the conversation that may be most helpful for the screenwriters reading this blog.

Macaulay’s first question was, how do you know what a screenplay is, to which Schamus replied, “It’s completely a business plan…American screenplays are essentially 124 pages begging for money…The scripts are moving into predetermined generic modules…On the other side, the fantasy side, there is the writer/director mode…all of us live somewhere between the two ends of that spectrum…On that spectrum, you are doing something that serves as an object…The problem of getting too far on the (writer/director side) of the spectrum…a screenplay in the production context is 123 pages of advice and if the advice is a little hazy or if someone stops taking the advice…once you stop taking your own advice, everybody stops, too…The key to making a movie well…is that everybody on the set is making the same movie.”

To elaborate on the writer/director paradigm, Macaulay noticed that fewer directors seem to be going down this path. Macaulay asked Schamus if he’s noticed this, too, and if so, why does he think so? Using Ang Lee as an example, Shamus said, “Ang was never a writer/director. He was always a filmmaker. That definition seemed in and of itself sort of liberating a couple of years ago, became actually quite constraining…That said, writer/directors are still clearly the DNA that will never rinse down American independent cinema…You can be a non-writer/director and still be an auteur…(that) came out of (France’s) Cahier du Cinema writers who were not writing about themselves…they weren’t filmmakers yet. They were writing about filmmakers who had household name recognition…What they were doing was using auteur theories to excavate the idea of the director as the central signator…inside the Hollywood system and use that wedge open a completely different appreciation of cinema.”

With Focus’s upcoming release of Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre, Macaulay asked Schamus how Focus got involved with working with a first-time feature filmmaker. Schamus said, “We continue to adapt our business to audiences. In this case…an audience that’s open to a first-time filmmaker…To me what’s exciting about Sin Nombre besides how masterful and amazing the movie is…how do we create a Latino audience in the United States? We saw his short, which he was developing at the Sundance Lab [More about screenwriting labs, contests & worshops in a near future post here]…We’re really an internationally oriented company…80% of my day is spent on movies that are circulating across the globe.”

And what about Schamus as a screenwriter himself, mostly working on adaptations with Lee, Macaulay asked. “With Ang, it’s literally whatever I can find that will scare the shit out of him,” Schamus revealed. “I actually really like Hollywood movies. I like the system. It’s an incredibly interesting cultural machine.”

Opening the conversation to the audience, one person asked the perennial question, how does one submit a project to the company? Schamus recognized that the answer is a “Catch 22” saying “you need representation…If I accepted an unsolicited manuscript; my own lawyers will now sue me.” Later someone asked if it’s best to come to Focus with the complete package of a producer, director and a star, to which Schamus replied, it varies. “It usually means someone we believe internationally, in a territory other than the United States, somebody who has a bit of a profile that we can leverage.” And for people looking to work as spec script writers, Schamus said, “Spec scripts are for people who want jobs. That genre only functions in the Hollywood context …There’s no spec feature market (for example) for European art films…It’s basically the Energizer Bunny approach.” And finally, does age bias really exists for screenwriters? “For whatever reason, there is a bias against older writers, except there are a handful of A-listers. Part of it is, if you actually establish yourself as a writer-for-hire let’s say by your 30s, that business is fairly lucrative…and then, after 10 years…that’s it.”

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