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A Deeper Cinematic Focus: 20 Years of Focus Features

By Kevin Nelson · March 14, 2022

Since its founding in 2002, Focus Features has garnered a legacy of being the production and distribution company behind countless iconic specialty films spearheaded by fearless filmmakers, championing auteur-driven films with strong visions and original voices. 

Following the independent film boom of the 1990s, major production studios began acquiring independent studios to capitalize on the popularity of specialty films. Formed in a merger between USA Films (Traffic, Being John Malkovich), Good Machine (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Adaptation), and Universal Focus (Billy ElliotBeautiful Creatures), Focus Features was born not as a rival of independent filmmakers — but a collaborator.

As a division of NBCUniversal, Focus Features is focused on taking big swings on stories that have universal appeal. In the traditional filmmaking spirit of collaboration, Focus Features often teams up with other independent studios such as Working Title and StudioCanal, and are known to acquire films from festivals such as Sundance. They’ve capitalized on streaming during the pandemic and see no sign of slowing down their pursuit of showcasing great films that connect audiences from around the world.

As chairman Peter Kujawski told The Hollywood Reporter:

“There’s going to be a good opportunity for partnerships, the alchemy of like-minded people setting out to get a movie in front of the most people possible. We all champion projects for reasons that aren’t just driven by the bottom line but by a sense of cultural curation and the sense of advocacy for certain issues or certain voices or certain aesthetic choices. I think you’re going to see a mix of deals and, hopefully, they will all be very positive experiences for the filmmakers involved.”

Over the past two decades, Focus Features has produced and distributed some of the finest films ever made. Let’s take a look at several of them.

Scripts from this Article

The Pianist

The Pianist is a biographical war drama written by Sir Ronald Harwood and is based on the memoir by pianist, composer, and Holocaust survivor Władysław Szpilman. It was the sixth film made by Focus Features and was co-produced with StudioCanal and Canal+, but it was the first film to garner them awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay for Harwood at the 75th Academy Awards. 

A second title page is used to make note that all dialogue spoken by Germans will be in the German language and subtitled unless otherwise stated. This already lets the ready know that the film aims to be as authentic as possible. The script begins in the middle of the Nazi invasion into Poland, forcing Szpilman and his family into desperate measures in order to survive from the very first page. The reader is thrust into the action much like the characters. 

On page 71, Szpilman is hidden in an area surrounded by German forces. He has to remain quiet. Inside the apartment is a piano. Tempted to play, it’s a beautiful and heartbreaking scene as he floats his fingers over the keys — unable to play or he’ll likely be caught and executed. It’s certainly a scene that’ll bring tears to your eyes.

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Brokeback Mountain

When screenwriter Diana Ossana read Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain in The New Yorker days after it was published, she sent it over to her writing partner Larry McMurty, who told The Huffington Post, “I knew before I was even halfway through that it was a masterpiece.”

They wrote Proulx a “fan letter” expressing their desire to adapt the short story into a feature screenplay. Proulx responded a week later. She didn’t think it’d adapt well into a movie but gave them her blessing anyway. The short story provided them with a basic framework, so they decided to fill out the drama by focusing on the domestic lives of the two cowboys and how the real ripple effect of their relationship reverberated beyond their own fears.

Their script gained attention in the industry, but it was a tough script to sell. It went into development hell for years until finally, Ang Lee came back around to the idea. He had just completed Hulk and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and was utterly exhausted. He even thought about retiring. That is, until he found out from Focus Features’s James Schamus that the script hadn’t been made yet, proving a truly great screenplay can always find new life.

Brokeback Mountain was written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, directed by Ang Lee, and adapted from Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story by the same name. 

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Milk

Director Gus Van Sant was originally supposed to direct Brokeback Mountain but ultimately chose Milk instead. Working off a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, Milk is a biographical drama based on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk.

While working as a writer on the HBO show Big Love, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black would drive up to San Francisco on the weekends to meet with Harvey Milk’s friends, co-conspirators, and even adversaries. 

Dustin Lance Black spoke with Focus Features on the 10-year reunion of Milk’s release about what it took to get an LGBTQ+ story produced when he wrote it in 2004:

“Things have changed so massively in 10 years. Back then, getting people interested in stories that just had an LGBTQ+ character was incredibly difficult, much less a story that took our lives seriously…To get Milk made, we thought let’s package it, get a cast together, and then take it to the one place that has proven they know how to do this and do it right. Let’s take it to Focus Features.”

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a Cold War spy thriller written by Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan and based on the novel of the same name by John le Carré. Screenwriter Peter Morgan convinced Working Title Films co-chairmen Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner to adapt le Carré’s spy novel. The novelist agreed as long as they reinvented it. 

Morgan delivered a draft and dropped out due to other commitments when Bevan, Fellner, and fellow producer Robyn Slovo brought on the married writing team of Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan. The writers used both the BBC miniseries and the book for their adaptation, but the biggest help was chatting with le Carré himself. Even with all his help, they felt free to create new material that benefitted the story and felt in no way restricted to the source material. When adapting, it’s a fine balance between ingenuity and copy-and-pasting. This is a great example of how to build on what you already have.

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The Place Beyond the Pines

Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio & Darius Marder, The Place Beyond the Pines is a great script that combines drama with suspense, action, and family bonds. Cianfrance was inspired by the birth of his second son and began to think of the responsibilities of fatherhood, especially the extremes one would go to in order to provide when facing tremendous pressure.

The first draft was apparently over 160 pages long and by the time the three writers were done with it, they’d rewritten the script 37 times. 

The narrative is a triptych that explores how the sins of our fathers can reverberate across generational lines. A triptych is a work of art divided into three sections or a single piece. By showing three different perspectives of how a single event could have lasting effects, the writers were able to tell a cohesive story over several years.

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Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club is a biographical drama based on the real-life of Ron Woodroof, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 and given 30 days to live. Journalist Bill Minutaglio wrote an article about Woodroof for The Dallas Morning News in 1992. Screenwriter Craig Borten heard about the story from a friend and instantly knew it would make a great movie. 

He met and interviewed Woodroof, recording several hours of conversation. When Woodroof died a month later in September of 1992, Borten was given access to Woodroof’s personal journals. Borten passionately wrote the screenplay which gained interest from Columbia Pictures and even had Dennis Hopper attached to direct and Woody Harrelson playing Woodroof.

As with all things in the industry, sometimes great things take time to find the right team. Borten met screenwriter Melisa Wallack in 2000 and asked her to help him with a rewrite. They worked for about a year and approached Robbie Brenner with the project. The studio seemed to want to go in a different direction and various writers were hired to deliver new drafts. The project stalled until the rights were reverted back to the writers by the WGA’s reversion clause.

When they got the rights back, Borten and Wallack approached Brenner again because he had always been their most dedicated supporter on the project. After Brenner sent the script to Matthew McConaughey and got him on board, the project was off to the races. The script offers a sympathetic and intimate look into how the failed American medical system treated a population largely stigmatized in their greatest time of need.

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The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything was written by Anthony McCarten and based on Jane Hawking’s autobiography Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. McCarten had always been interested in Stephen Hawking after reading A Brief History of Time. So much so, he ended up writing The Theory of Everything on spec. He was introduced to producer Lisa Bruce by their mutual agent, Craig Bernstein, and the two spent three years developing the script. 

The introduction of Stephen Hawking is remarkable in the first two pages. We’re shown fragments of the man. The introductory scene is transitioned perfectly with the graphic match in the wheels of the wheelchair and bicycle — an image that also alludes to the passing of time. This theme is repeated on page 20 with a fantastic montage sequence of Stephen and Jane’s night under the stars/fireworks. 

McCarten also includes remarkable details throughout that show Hawking’s deterioration with masterful precision. This is a great biopic that, like its subject, thinks outside of the box. 

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The Danish Girl

Written by Lucinda Coxon and based on the novel of the same name by David Ebershoff, The Danish Girl was meant to be directed by Tomas Alfredson, who ended up directing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy instead. This taught Coxon a valuable lesson — the art of patience. She was hired to write the adaptation of a film she made in the UK titled The Heart of Me

Coxon told Creative Screenwriting:

“I started in 2004 and within a couple of years, we had a script we were happy to send out. We were terribly excited and I was fantastically naïve because when you fall in love with a project, you assume that everyone else will be in love with it as well. The actors were very much in love with it. Several well-known actresses wanted to play Gerda, but the subject matter made it quite difficult to find someone to play Lili. We scheduled various directors and with each director came a new draft. We had probably gone through twenty drafts before landing Tom Hooper. In fact, the one we shot was actually an early revised draft that Tom had read back in 2008. I did a fairly large rewrite for Tom, but in the end, we used a version with little revision from the original.”

Sometimes it takes years to make progress on a project that really matters. In this case, over a decade. When The Danish Girl was finally released in 2015, the world was a little more accepting — yet we still have so far to go.

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Loving

Loving is a biographical romantic drama written and directed by Jeff Nichols and is based on the true story of Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple who fought all the way to the Supreme Court for their right to be married. 

While filming Main Street in North Carolina, actor Colin Firth heard about the story of the Lovings and created the production company Raindog Films with Ged Doherty to bring it to the screen. First, they made a documentary with Nancy Buirski through crowdfunding, but Firth also felt it would make for a great narrative film.

After seeing Jeff Nichol’s Take Shelter, the producers approached the budding young writer/director about taking on the adaptation. He watched the documentary and immediately knew how he’d approach the script — by showing the intimate day-to-day moments that magnified their love. He was hesitant because he’d never been hired to adapt a script before.

Nichols explained what he told the producers during a roundtable event with Zimbio:

“I gave them a call and said, ‘Look, this is my interpretation of it—this was kind of on the heels of The Help coming out back in 2012, and it made a boatload of money—and I said, “I’m gonna make a really slow, really quiet film and I don’t know if it’s gonna be the feel-good experience of the year. And there’s potential for someone to make a film like that out of this story so if you guys really want that then I’m not the right guy for you. But if you’re willing to go this other way then let’s keep talking.’ That’s kind of the way it developed.”

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BlacKkKlansman

Screenwriters Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz read the book Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth and reached out to him about adapting the book. The screenwriters got Stallworth’s blessing and they interviewed him for further research. They wrote a spec script to Stallworth’s approval and shopped it around town. 

It landed in the hands of Shaun Redick and Ray Mansfield from QC Entertainment, who got co-producing help from Blumhouse Productions and Monkeypaw Productions. When director Spike Lee came on board, he hired screenwriter Kevin Wilmott to help him with the rewrites. 

Written by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz with revisions by Kevin Wilmott and Spike Lee, the very first image hits you like a gut punch and the words burn from the page with hatred. The subject matter is meant to stir your soul and the words used on the page do just that. 

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Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey is Focus Features’s largest grossing film at the box office, bringing with it the fanbase of the television show, which had benefited from streaming platforms allowing larger audiences to access it. The show ended in 2015, and due to its popularity, it wasn’t long before creator Julian Fellowes penned a feature screenplay to satiate the fan’s hunger for royalty. The film did so well that a sequel is on the way. 

The screenplay is interesting in that the dialogue is mainly driven through dialogue aside from the opening montage, which is presented in a large chunk of action lines.

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Promising Young Woman

Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman is a tour-de-force that makes you squirm from the get-go. It’s a darkly comedic thriller with a devastatingly tragic ending that still finds a way to squeeze in a last-second act of justice. It’s no wonder that Fennell was able to sell the script to Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap Entertainment after only pitching the opening scene. 

Fennell’s writing style is sharp and electric. She does a great job of setting up and revealing things through the script like the punchline of a joke. Take the opening scene for instance. The whole time you’re hoping that Jez will do the right thing and make sure Cassandra gets home safely. Outwardly, he projects the good-guy image, but each of his actions slowly reveals his true character and intentions. We realize this with hints that Cassandra realizes it, but her true state of mind is hidden aside from a tiny detail you may miss on the first read.

The reveal at the bottom of page 10 when Cassandra is shown to be stone-cold sober is underlined, which not only adds emphasis but almost hits the reader with the gravity of the situation. It’s a badass reveal, both on the page and onscreen. Fennell then cuts to black, brings in a dope song, and drops a title card before misleading us with what we believe to be dripping blood — but is actually ketchup from a hotdog, an image in itself that has heavy connotations. Set up, mislead, reveal — Fennel’s killer writing kind of reflects Cassandra’s hunt.

This script keeps readers on their toes the whole time. A description will get the mind going and then Fennell comes in and shatters the reader’s expectations with answers they never saw coming. It’s a masterclass and a script you should definitely read. 

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Last Night in Soho

Last Night in Soho is a psychological horror written by Edgar Wright & Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Wrights first pitched the idea back in 2007, but it wasn’t until filmmaker Sam Mendes introduced him to Wilson-Cairns that the project was revived. Their shared love for the Soho area in London and 1960s culture led them on a pub crawl through the basement pubs, where Wright pitched his idea for Last Night in Soho.

After the release of Baby Driver, Wright planned on immediately following it up with a sequel but decided to revisit his Soho idea. He asked Wilson-Cairns if she wanted to co-write the script together, and he rented an office in Soho where the two did extensive research to get the details of the era right. 

They wrote the script in six weeks before Krysty Wilson-Cairns went on to co-write 1917 with Sam Mendes. The title also changed multiple times before Wright recalled a conversation he had with Quentin Tarantino, who told Wright that Allison Anders thinks Last Night in Soho was “the best title music for a film never made.”

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With over fifty features in various stages of development, Focus Features will remain in the spotlight for decades to come and it seems as though they’re just now reaching their prime. 

What are some of your favorite Focus Features?

Search through more great Focus Features titles here.

Scripts from this Article