Pre-chat Q&A with Mr. David Linde

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, itís 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. Itís 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. Itís 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 itís 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 itís simply very difficult to get in. With that said Ė itís 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, itís 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, Montrťal, 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.  Itís 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 itís a relatively inexpensive way to publicize a film. Moreover, because of the cost of holding these festivals, itís 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 itís 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 Ė 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