Pre-chat Q&A with Mr. David Linde
Mr. Linde was co-president of Focus Features at the time of the chat (March 2003).
Could you give us an overview of what you do?
Focus is a worldwide film distribution company with offices in New York, Los Angeles and London with an affiliated office in Paris. We oversee the development, production and financing of motion pictures as well as providing the financing for their actual creation. We also acquire the distribution rights to films produced and financed by other companies. I run the company with my partner, James Schamus. We’ve worked together for many years and have a very close working relationship — which means that we largely share all the responsibilities of running the company.
What circumstances brought you to participate in the creation of Good Machine?
I had worked in film distribution (largely internationally) for about 12 years – first at Paramount, then Fox Lorber Associates (now Wellspring) and then Miramax. I had developed close relationships with filmmakers in which I was very involved in the financing and distribution of their movies – and really enjoyed the experience. Simultaneously, I was exposed (and responded strongly) to the entrepreneurial environment of Fox/Lorber and Miramax. Basically, I wanted to try my hand at running a company and had met the two guys who founded Good Machine (James Schamus and Ted Hope) when I tried to buy the distribution rights to “Eat Drink Man Woman” from them. It was a great fit — we shared similar tastes and they were looking to expand Good Machine’s horizons. I joined them as a partner to do just that — expand their ability to finance their movies and bring new filmmakers to the company.
How would you describe Focus’s philosophy – in general and marketing-wise? Does it differ much from GM’s, now that you are under a studio’s wing?
The philosophy is very similar — we’re still trying very hard to make and distribute “signature films by signature filmmakers.” The studio gives us much greater resources to do that.
The Hulk project sounds like a more “commercial” choice (at least on the surface) – is this a new direction Focus wishes to explore? Was it concocted by Mr. Schamus and Mr. Lee or was it brought to Focus from elsewhere?
“The Hulk” is not a Focus movie, it’s a Universal movie. As you may know, James has produced all of Ang Lee’s movies and his involvement as one of the producers of the film predates the creation of Focus.
There seems to be differing opinions about what constitutes an independent film. At one point, budget was the determining factor (making the best possible film with limited resources). Now some studios identify films with 20 million dollar budgets as independent. What constitutes an independent film for you?
There was an explosion of low-budget American independent productions in the ’80′s that also helped spawn several very successful independent distribution companies — most notably, Miramax and New Line — as well as production companies like Good Machine and Killer Films. I think we tend to associate that period as defining “independent film” but there is a much longer history of independent filmmaking, after all, Gone With The Wind was very much an independent production. It’s very hard for me to answer that question but ultimately, I think an “independent film” most likely is a picture that is born outside of what you would associate as mainstream cinema (which I still love) both creatively and in the method it is financed.
Has independent film changed in the time you have been working in it? Or have you noticed any changes in the quality or content of independent films?
I have a very international (including the U.S.!) perspective on the business and I’m constantly amazed by the quality of work that is going on, everywhere. There are real ebbs and flows as you suddenly discover tremendous originality somewhere. Sundance was very much the locus for a tremendous creative dynamic here that began in the ’80s but at the same time, there was very exciting filmmaking going on in Asia, much of which only came to the forefront in the late ’90s. Right now, what’s going on in places like Mexico, Iran, Spain, Thailand, etc. is astounding. I spent about a week in Sundance this year and was very taken by the films that I saw there. It’s interesting to see how much digital production is really coming of age and also how many good, indie films are being financed by HBO and Showtime. Both those networks are providing a real alternative to producers who want to make original, low budget fare with younger directors.
Have indie films influenced the ways studios have approached the production and/or marketing of their films?
Absolutely. As a distributor, you can only hope to match the creativity of the filmmaker in the ways that you present their film.
When you consider the marketing of a film, is it different for each genre and/or budget of the film or star attached?
In short, yes. In evaluating how you present a film — which costs a lot of money — you have to take everything into account in targeting the audience and hopefully, expanding well upon it.
With Box Office info being so accessible to the public nowadays and with the various marketing campaigns via the Internet, do you utilize specific industry tricks to garner larger audiences and appeal when you release a film?
You have to be aware of every trick in the book and then invent a few of your own — because once you use them, everyone knows what they are!
When did you become involved with the marketing and distribution of The Pianist?
We bought the U.S. rights to the film after screening it at the Cannes Film Festival in May last year. We began working on its presentation immediately — which started with the selection of the release date. Once we chose that date, the “machine” started up.
It seems to me that most of the best independent film festivals (Sundance, New York, Toronto, etc) fill their slates with films that have recognizable talent involved — either directors or actors. I think they will many times choose these, even if they are not as good or entertaining as a film without attachments — It’s good marketing. What advice would you give to help low budget filmmakers have a better shot at being noticed if we lack the celebrity element?
I think it’s important to take into account that these festivals vary tremendously in scope and purpose. Going off the top of my head, I think I would break them down as follows, using specific examples.
1) Cannes, Venice, Locarno, San Sebastian, Tokyo and Berlin are representative of very high profile, international festivals that take submissions from around the world. Accordingly, they often limit the amount of films they take from each country and it’s simply very difficult to get in. With that said – it’s not impossible and in each of these cases, the festivals have created side-sections outside of the main competition (which are still very much part of the festival) primarily oriented to younger filmmakers. These include Berlin (Panorama, Forum), Cannes (Director’s Fortnight, Un Certain Regard, Critic’s Week) and Venice (Critic’s Week.) If you think you have a film that would play in these festivals, it’s important to get the regulations from each festival (they all have websites) and carefully read the descriptions of each section. The worst thing you can do is submit your film to the wrong section.
2) Toronto, Melbourne/Sydney, Montréal, Edinburgh. These are all very large, “national” festivals that make an attempt to not only bring in films from acclaimed filmmakers but have created side-sections specifically oriented to younger, independent filmmakers — often with a focus on local filmmakers. It’s also important to remember that these festivals tend to attract a huge amount of national press and thus distributors will use the festival as a launching pad for the release of their movie because it’s a relatively inexpensive way to publicize a film. Moreover, because of the cost of holding these festivals, it’s important that high-profile filmmakers and actors attend the festival itself — it keeps the profile of the festival high and satisfies the wider audience they rely on to support the festival. You or I may not like a particular film by a well-known filmmaker but it doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience interested in seeing the continuation of that filmmaker’s work.
3) Seattle, LAIFF, Hamptons, Austin (South By Southwest), Santa Barbara. These are strong, local festivals that have gradually built up their profile for discovering new directors. As a result, they attract executives from the various film production and distribution companies scouting talent. Films at these festivals get reviewed in Variety and Hollywood Reporter. These festivals are a terrific way to get your film noticed — if it’s good, people will talk about it at these fests and you will get “covered.”
Could you explain the different functions between the distribution and acquisition people at the same studio?
Acquisitions folks are constantly in search of projects that are either about ready to be made, in production or completed — and that, in turn, they believe have a “market” in theatres. Effectively, they buy the film so that the company can then distribute the film into theatres. Distribution people actually “book” the films into theatres, which are owned and operated by different companies. They decide how many theatres the film should go into and at what time of year – taking into account their perception of how many people can be convinced to see it and where they live.
If you believe a film might be commercially successful domestically, but not internationally, how does that impact your decision whether it should be made/acquired?
We evaluate every film by trying to identify its “core” market. For instance, when we made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — we were confident that the film would be a big hit in Asia and Europe but were actually less sure about North America. Accordingly, we budgeted the film on that basis. Little did we know…
In your opinion, what makes a GREAT script/story?
For first or second timers — a strong, defined 3-act structure. Compelling primary characters that you can identify (positively or negatively) with early on. A strong sense of time and place.
Chat session transcript
March 28, 2003
Jacinthe/TwoAdverbs> Hello David, welcome to Two Adverbs.
[David Linde] Thanks. Hi everyone.
Jacinthe/TwoAdverbs> perfumegirl, go ahead.
[perfumegirl] David, at which stage did Focus get involved with Ozon’s 8 Femmes? Were you contacted by Missonier & Delbosc before/during its production or did you work with Celluloid after it was done? Was it the same in the case of Swimming Pool or did you have some creative input? And why did Focus only pick up the US distribution rights instead of North America or more English-language markets?
[David Linde] We inherited 8 Women from USA Films, who acquired the film during its production (Focus was formed by the merger of USA Films with Good Machine). Focus acquired Swimming Pool itself a few months ago based on a script and seeing about 10 minutes of footage, which rocked. We only got US because the producers had already sold the rest of the world.
[perfumegirl] Does Pool have the same graphic quality as 8 femmes?
[David Linde] Swimming Pool is a very smart, sensual thriller. It’s a different kind of movie. Ozon fans will be very happy along with a whole lot of people who have never had the chance to see one of his earlier films.
[perfumegirl] Best luck with it.
[David Linde] Merci.
[HConn] How do you choose films to distribute? Do you go to festivals? Do you take recommendations? Do people send you tapes? (Hope that’s not embarrassingly basic.)
[David Linde] We have a pretty aggressive acquisitions department that covers all the major festivals as well as constantly monitoring every film that is in production around the world – literally. If it strikes their fancy — based on their knowledge of our taste — they screen it.
[Spud] How much more mileage does a film garner after winning an Oscar? And an Oscar vs. Golden Globe, Spirit, etc?
[David Linde] Basically, the bump you get from an Oscar is based on
a) the importance of the award and
b) how far into the country you have already gone.
In the case of The Pianist, the film was performing very well in the major cities around the country — the 3 big ones we were lucky to receive will definitely help us go much farther.
[y2kfool] Mr. Linde – Would a production company like yours determine acquisitions based on subject matter that would have a wider appeal than the American market? For example, would a screenplay with elements of an American sport such as baseball be a hard sell?
[David Linde] We try to define the “core business” of every film we make. In the case of a baseball movie — we would have to be confident that the film would play well enough in the U.S. and, say, Japan, to justify the cost of making it — we would presume that outside of those countries there would be very little market. With that said — any money outside of those countries would be gravy…
[gaterooze] How has the advent of the “Internet Age” changed the way you conduct daily business in the film world?
[David Linde] You’re really talking about the speed that you can now reach the audience in presenting a film, which is due to the proliferation of new communication channels. One great thing about these new “channels” is that it allows you to really target your audience, which can be very helpful with “smaller” movies. Initially, at least, you don’t have to necessarily throw out such a wide financial net.
[phatgirl] Since I’m in NY, I’m curious about the primary responsibilities of your NY office. Does story acquisition/development take place there? Also, what types of NYC films events do you attend?
[David Linde] Most development is done out of our Los Angeles office. On occasion, the acquisitions people here get involved in developing projects with specific producers/directors based here or in Europe. We also have a very close relationship with a production company based in NYC – This is That — run by Ted Hope, Anthony Bregman and Anne Carey. They do a great deal of development and have a “first-look” deal with Focus.
[Luther11] I have a story that involves four Black, gay protagonists. It’s a romantic drama. How can I sell the product?
[David Linde] This film will be all about budget. We made a great film a few years ago called Trick — low budget, great romantic film that crossed over.
[cleeder] Hi David, I enjoyed Trick. Do you feel there is a continuing market for gay romantic comedies? And was Trick developed from a spec?
[David Linde] Absolutely, yes. Trick was developed by the filmmaker on spec. He brought it to one of the producers at Good Machine who worked with him developing it further.
[Luther11] In your opinion, why was Trick such a crossover hit? Why did audiences respond so well to it?
[David Linde] It literally felt honest to everyone who saw it and Jim Fall did a terrific job creating real characters that folks felt for.
[BW1] Does Hollywood have an age bias for screenwriters?
[David Linde] That’s a very broad question but I guess Hollywood is always looking closely for the next hot thing — so when they find it (comic books, etc.) they tend to focus on writers who know that material best. Still — I think most of the Oscar nominations this year went to folks over 40.
[BW1] Thanks! From an old guy…
[gaterooze] Not old, wise or wizened! Give it some spin…
[David Linde] Experienced.
[perfumegirl] Let’s say a Franco-American project is being tracked by two studios’ acquisition folks, in this case, does it become a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” situation? Can one then presume the assistants will stay up-to-date on its development or nothing’s sure unless the news shows on the trades?
[David Linde] In production?
[David Linde] If it’s being made, yes, absolutely – they will track it closely.
[perfumegirl] They will be on top of it?
[David Linde] Yes.
[Pickel] David Herzog moved to USA Films after leaving MTV — based on a query I sent, he requested my thriller, but I didn’t have representation. What would you suggest for writers to do when they run up against these types of problems? It’s not like agents run around with their hands up yelling let me send it over to David for ya.
[David Linde] Understood, it’s very difficult. If someone requests your material, they should respond no matter what they think of it. If they don’t, a friendly call to the assistant can often work — make them your ally — they have a lot of influence.
[gaterooze] Can you use an entertainment attorney to get it to him?
[David Linde] There are a few that have these kinds of relationships, but are most effective when they have made some sort of commitment to making the film — e.g. bringing in a producer, which can be a big help.
[Jyro] David, what percentage of your films (Focus) are developed and produced in house as opposed to those you acquire?
[David Linde] Because we are a young company, right now about 75% of our slate is acquisitions. Next year it will be 50/50, and then probably become 75% developed/produced.
[gaterooze] How do you determine if a film might have “crossover” potential? Is there a definition, or gut instinct that comes into play? Upcoming prospects of crossover films you’re keeping an eye on?
[David Linde] I think every film we do can crossover! Basically, in evaluating a project, I have to make an educated decision that it will have a certain potential — and be willing to spend the money to get it to that potential. With that said, it wouldn’t be fair to anyone (including my company) if I wasn’t always thinking about expanding that basic audience. Someone brought up 8 Women, which did pretty traditional foreign language business — but I was always hoping it would cross out of that art house to play a really fun, entertaining movie — granted for more upscale audiences.
[metanoia] David, what’s your company’s opinion on biopics? Obviously it depends on the subject and how well told the story is, but I notice some companies shy away from them, period.
[David Linde] Well, The Pianist is a biopic but of a different nature – it’s a highly original and basically, previously unknown story.
[Ohio] Handling any documentaries now or in the near future?
[David Linde] We just did The Kid Stays in the Picture. I love documentaries and have a long history with them. We’re definitely looking at them.
[HConn] Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. What movie has been most difficult for you to market? What was your biggest challenge? And in what way was it tough?
[HConn] That’s the same question twice, but…
[gaterooze] You really, really wanna know.
[David Linde] I can’t be that specific because to really analyze a film’s performance like that, and in a public forum like this, would be unfair to the filmmaker. So I’ll dance around that one! The simple reality is that every film is a challenge because so many films are being released and it is very expensive to do so. It’s very important to identify not only what an audience will respond to but also what they might reject and why — that’s perhaps one of the biggest challenge of marketing, getting the audience past things they may not feel totally comfortable with.
[gaterooze] What “attachments” most interest you to become involved with a project during early development? Producer, lead(s) talent, or director — or all of the above… clearly it will be different in each specific situation, but is there a “better” attachment, or one you’d shy away from initially?
[David Linde] Producer.
Jacinthe/TwoAdverbs> Thank you very much, David, for taking the time to chat with us.
[David Linde] Thanks very much – I enjoyed it.