After a typically eclectic year for the specialty banner that saw hits including Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical black-and-white Oscar Belfastless successful titles such as Robert Eggers’ $70 million+ Viking revenge thriller The man from the northand versions like Downton Abbey Sequel, Edgar Wright’s Scary ’60s Time Traveler Last night in Soho and lo-fi British comedy Brian and Charles (featuring perhaps the most ridiculous robot ever seen on screen), Focus Features kicks off its fall festival season with a more classic number.
Where is it? We don’t know much about Tarthe highly publicized return of Todd Field to the director’s chair 15 years after his last feature film, Small childrenaside from the fact that it stars Cate Blanchett as a famous fictional composer and bandleader.
According to Focus President of Production and Acquisitions Kiska Higgs, the film is, well, hard to describe exactly, but she expects it to wow audiences with the same kind of enthusiastic enthusiasm that it does. was seen throwing Field’s script across the room. first time reading it.
Talk to The Hollywood Reporter in front of Tarfrom the world premiere in Venice, Higgs discusses the benefits of being a part of the great “steam engine” that is NBCUniversal, loving the titles she’s acquired fully formed no less than those she’s worked on since conception , taking big – but calculated – leaps when it comes to green light projects and laments the fact that no one has taken his stand for a Minions/Downton Abbey crossing.
There seems to be a lot of buzz about Cate Blanchett already in Tar. Is it a good thing to enter a festival, before it has had its world premiere, or can it be a curse?
She always delivers! She is one of those actors where the buzz is always justified, she never lets you down. Have you ever seen a performance where you’re like “Oh man, average Cate again”? But she’s really transformative in this movie. So, oddly, of all the things that make me nervous in life, this buzz isn’t the one.
Tar marks Todd Field’s return to film after 15 years. How did the film land with Focus?
We had sent him another project that we were developing, and he came over, I think just before the pandemic, and said he had thought about it but he actually had a story he wanted to write, which didn’t was not that scenario. And he basically said, “If you don’t like it, I’ll go back and rewrite the other script you sent me for free.” And so he sent this script, and I was on a trip at the time and I read it and literally threw it across the hotel room. Because it’s like this movie which is… I don’t know how to describe it. It’s dazzling and infuriating and in every scene you don’t know what you’re thinking. I had never read anything like it. It’s like this meditation on the power and cancellation of culture, which takes place in Germany. It is a strange creature. You will be hypnotized.
There isn’t much information about the story and the trailer doesn’t reveal anything. My only point of reference when it comes to films about classical music and composers is Amedee. Is it something like that?
It’s really more of a character study about power. I call it a black diamond because every time you watch it there’s a different facet, and every scene you watch you have a different reaction, depending on your mood, who you are that day , how you feel about her. You can watch it a million times and think about a different thing in every scene every moment. It’s a true tour de force of cinema, but it’s kind of not what it’s supposed to be about. It is an extremely scholarly film. I do not consider myself a miser on gray matter, but it requires concentration!
How does Focus allocate its resources between producing films like Tar of the design and acquisition of films already completed?
We have a strategic roster, which is kind of broken down into a division, but in real life it kind of comes together. Belfast is a good example. We probably wouldn’t have been able to get it back had we had a bigger production slate that year and hadn’t been in the middle of a pandemic on top of that. It’s a bit like – and apologies for overusing a political term – a “first-past-the-post” thing.
Do you have a preference? It must be a great feeling to spot an unknown gem at a festival, but then working with a filmmaker you love on a film through to release must also be extremely rewarding.
The cool thing about this job is that you can do all of them. In fact, someone recently complimented me on something that I literally didn’t touch, because we bought it finished. I suppose Brian and Charles is a good example. We haven’t touched it. But I don’t love him any less. I have fewer war stories about it! But I think for me personally, the final stages of development in pre-production, production, and post-production are the most satisfying, bringing something to the door and making it.
The man from the north was among Focus’ flashiest and most expensive recent features, but unfortunately didn’t do as well as hoped at the box office. Have lessons been learned?
It’s been talked about before, but it ended up being a financial win for us. There was a special set of circumstances regarding the theatrical release, plus PVOD. I know in the press it wasn’t hailed as a success, but it was OK for us in the end. There are other ways for us to monetize things, at least for us at Universal. It was the one we shared with New Regency, and we weren’t really central to its production. But certainly lessons were learned from a creative standpoint, but I’m not looking back and I think we could have done something differently because there were so many… Vikings in the boat.
When Focus has a more expensive title that doesn’t perform spectacularly, does that have a ripple effect on how much you can spend on other films?
I kind of like the idea of saying “no” and then getting a call from a dark tower somewhere saying, “What do you mean? But really, that’s the amazing thing about being part of NBCUniversal. And also, just the sheer economy of it means we can make almost anything work. We are extremely responsible for how we approve films and how we make them. And, frankly, how we market and publish them as well. We take big swings, that’s for sure, but they’re always calculated. And through the slate, everything comes out in the wash. We’ve had some very successful years, and I’d like to take credit for that. But most of the time it’s because we are only part of this huge steam engine that Minions above Brian and Charles. I was actually trying to run a Minions/Downton Abbey crossing. I don’t know why someone didn’t tell me about it.
About Downtown, Focus created its own small mini-franchise with the two spin-off films. Is that something you look for when shooting green light?
Not really. I say we are the big tent specialty. So Brian and Charles sits down easily Downton Abbey just like silent twins sits next to Mrs. Harris is going to Paris. I think it’s confusing for some people, we’re not a brand identity like some other distributors are. Sure, we have a brand, but there are no rules on what makes a Focus film. But Downtown and Reading Club and Greek wedding, they all came to Focus in different ways, sometimes through Universal, but they all serve an audience that is really a Focus audience, which is this older female audience, and they all share a real sense of joy. That’s what makes them commercially successful, but we’re not wondering how we’re going to franchise anything.
I recently spoke to Hugh Bonneville, and he told me that he thought Downton Abbey: A New Era would probably be the final Downtown film. Are there more on the horizon or is it for the Crawleys on the big screen?
I hope there are others. I’m a sucker for top/bottom stories. Gareth [Neame] and Carnival [Films] and [writer] Julian [Fellowes] of course are huge partners for us and we always talk. It was a huge cast. But we have had deaths. So we’ll see. Never say never.
It’s Focus’ 20e birthday this year. Do you have a favorite movie from his library?
I’m weirdly bad at lists or favorites. I don’t think I have any. Sounds terrible, so maybe we should just say they’re all my favorites! I mean, I have a few that I don’t like.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.