Gotham Awards: Focus Execs on How New York Shaped Their Artist-First Storytelling Approach
Focus Features chairman Peter Kujawski and vice chairman Jason Cassidy have spent decades in the film industry. Several of their formative years were in New York, and now, as their company celebrates its 20th anniversary, the execs — now based in L.A. — are being honored with an industry tribute by the Gotham Awards. It comes as the studio’s drama Tár leads the event’s nominations (with five nods, including for best feature).
Ahead of the ceremony, Kujawski and Cassidy spoke to THR about how their time in NYC shaped their approach to film and why Focus has endured.
What does it mean to be honored by the Gotham Awards?
PETER KUJAWSKI We both came up in the New York film business, and this is an incredibly meaningful community to us. This award maybe has our individual names on it but has much more to do with Focus as a whole.
JASON CASSIDY Many of the folks who have won this award before are such big parts of the business, it’s gratifying being part of that conversation.
What role did the city have in your careers?
KUJAWSKI New York is where I found my passions, and my first mentor in James Schamus. In the early days of Focus, as a New York-based company, I think it was fueled by that energy and ethos that is always present in New York. That still fuels what we do — that sense of possibility, energy and being a little bit separate from the day-to-day of the Hollywood film business — into something that is driven by that kind of artist-first point of view.
CASSIDY It’s such a vibrant city that you feel like you’re part of bold ideas, fresh voices, new perspectives. Certainly the independent film scene was very much reflective of that, so it really opens your eyes to the possibilities of what cinema can be.
Tár, starring Cate Blanchett, is the most nominated film at the Gotham Awards, and the studio’s coming-of-age drama Armageddon Time is also nominated.
CASSIDY Those are just two great movies from two very unique filmmakers, which is exactly the reason why we’re in this business.
KUJAWSKI Both films, in their own ways, are actively looking at power structures of the modern world and asking audiences to think about and discuss that, and that’s always an ethos that we care a ton about, which is getting a cultural conversation going.
How did the pandemic, during which Focus had some success with premium video on demand, inform your thinking about the streaming vs. theatrical debate?
CASSIDY It’s about getting people out talking about movies in the world. Getting audiences in theaters is the best way to do that, but at the same time, bringing in PVOD, you’re able to give the consumer choices. If they can’t make it to the theater, they can see it later, and that’s been a robust part of the business for us.
Focus is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. In that time, we’ve seen specialty film companies come and go. Why do you think the studio has endured?
KUJAWSKI We know and are grateful that we’re part of an amazing, larger company. The level of support and encouragement that we get from [Universal chairman] Donna Langley to take bold bets on filmmakers who are saying something meaningful, different and unique, that’s just good fortune. If you’re willing to take a swing on the kind of story that feels like something you’ve never seen onscreen before, the kind of point of view that pushes boundaries and asks more questions than gives answers, there’s an audience who wants those movies.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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