UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. – Feb. 4, 2016 – Universal Pictures today announced that Focus Features will emerge as the banner entity for the company’s strategy to align the acquisition and production of specialty films in the global market. Combining the resources of Universal Pictures International Productions (UPIP) with the highly respected creative legacy of Focus Features, the studio will create a powerhouse division from which Universal Pictures will grow the specialty film sector both domestically and around the world. The announcement was made by Universal Pictures Chairman Donna Langley.
Peter Kujawski, current Managing Director of UPIP, will lead the newly-integrated Focus Features as Chairman. A specialty film veteran, Kujawski will transition into his new role following the departure of current CEO Peter Schlessel on April 1. In addition, UPIP Co-Managing Director Robert Walak will become President, and Universal Pictures’ Executive Vice President of Film Strategy, Abhijay Prakash, will join Focus as Chief Operating Officer.
By integrating Focus Features and UPIP under the Focus banner, the new organization will be able to better leverage Universal’s worldwide distribution apparatus on behalf of its specialty product and become more closely aligned with the studio’s global strategy. Focus Features will retain full marketing and distribution operations and its domestic release volume will remain the same. Internationally it will build on the UPIP commitment to local language production, English-language co-productions, territorial acquisitions, and English-language production around the world. Schlessel has worked closely with Langley over the past several months in helping to conceive the renewed mandate of Focus.
“This move further demonstrates our commitment to both the specialty space and the international production and acquisition businesses. By aligning these product lines and bringing them closer to the studio, Focus will be able to take advantage of a wealth of resources – maximizing its opportunity for success,” said Langley. “The management team we’ve assembled is a seasoned specialty team that will be charged with both sharpening our product mix and building a premier global specialty brand,” added Langley. “With Peter’s leadership and team-building abilities, coupled with Robert’s impeccable taste and wealth of filmmaker relationships, and Abhijay’s vital experience in strategic slate building, we believe we are well-positioned to be a leader in the specialty business around the world.”
Added Langley, “When we decided to make genre, wide-release films part of Universal’s main slate and return Focus Features primarily to specialty product, Peter Schlessel and I mutually agreed that it was the right time for him to leave the company as his interests are not solely focused on the specialized film marketplace. He has been a terrific leader for Focus for the past two years and we are appreciative of his collaborative team-oriented attitude and dedication to oversee the upcoming films on the slate and facilitate a smooth transition.”
“I have enjoyed my time at Focus and getting to know some very talented executives both at the company as well as within the Universal leadership team,” said Schlessel. “I am very proud of our 2016/17 slate which followed the mandate given to us to combine director-driven movies with wide release commercial pictures. With Universal’s success in the diversity of its slate I was happy to help transition the company back to a pure specialty label.”
Schlessel will oversee the release of the division’s upcoming releases of Race, London Has Fallen and The Young Messiah before his departure. Current Focus COO, Adrian Alperovich, Marketing President, Christine Birch and President of Acquisitions, Lia Buman will also be exiting Focus Features in April.
Kujawski commented: “The foundational belief on which Focus Features was built and will continue to operate is that movies are an important and meaningful part of how people connect with and better understand each other. With our new worldwide perspective, Focus will continue that mandate with a global audience.”
Kujawski began his career at Good Machine, where he started as an assistant to company co-founder and co-president James Schamus. When Good Machine was absorbed into Focus Features in the spring of 2002, Kujawski joined Focus where he eventually served as executive vice president international sales. He came to Universal in 2011 as executive vice president worldwide acquisitions before his appointment to Managing Director of UPIP in 2014. Under his leadership, UPIP acquired rights to hugely successful films, including The Wolf of Wall Street, Boyhood and Room, which Universal released in select territories.
Walak joined Universal Pictures in 2015 as Co-Managing Director of UPIP after serving as Managing Director Europe/President Production, Acquisitions and Television at the Weinstein Company for several years, where he led a range of acquisitions, including Carol, Paddington, The Imitation Game and The Woman in Gold. Prior to joining Weinstein, Walak was Senior Vice President, Acquisitions & Production at Alliance Films/Momentum Pictures, where he led the acquisition of The King’s Speech. Previously, he worked in business development at Endemol and was a producer at MTV Europe. He will continue to be based in London in his new role.
Prakash most recently served as Executive Vice President, Film Strategy & Operations at Universal, overseeing a team responsible for key strategic initiatives while also supporting operations related to studio slate planning, greenlighting, marketing optimization and film financing across the studio’s various product lines. Prior to Universal, he worked at the Boston Consulting Group and also held other positions in media and worked as a public policy researcher.