Crouching Budget, Hidden Profits: James Schamus, Columbia Professor, Bets $137 Million on Ang Lee Epic

Last September, New York’s film industry gathered for the IFP Gotham Awards at Chelsea Piers. Before director Ang Lee accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award, a reel of his clips ran, concluding with a preview-the brief eyeball-bulging bit of celluloid now familiar to anyone with a television-of Mr. Lee’s upcoming movie, The Hulk . It was pretty cool.

But when the usually chipper Mr. Lee took the stage, he looked wary. Glancing out at his producing and writing partner, Focus Features co-president James Schamus, Mr. Lee said in heavily accented English: “I guarantee you that’s the biggest independent film ever made.”

Many in the room glanced uncomfortably from Mr. Lee to Mr. Schamus, whose doughy face, horn-rimmed glasses and ubiquitous bow tie make him look like a Keebler elf with a Ph.D.

With the June 20 release of The Hulk , a $137 million film about the Marvel Comics character, Mr. Schamus faces a complex reckoning. The screenwriter, low-budget-film pioneer, Columbia University professor and now studio executive’s radically diverse experiences must gel perfectly. A summer blockbuster that he wants everyone to know is a really smart film, The Hulk will be Mr. Schamus’ attempt to prove that a professor can make an action movie, that an action movie can be a thoughtful movie, and that a thoughtful movie can make millions.

Just six weeks ago, advance word on The Hulk was bleak. Press access had been limited, with one prevailing foghorn blaring Mr. Schamus’ message- It’s a smart movie! It’s a smart movie! -with an urgency that led many to wonder how much the explosions must suck.

They don’t suck.

The Hulk is a wad of Bazooka bubble gum for the eyes. Its spectacular desert shots and Marvel-accented wipes and cut-ins are arresting. Bruce Banner’s transformations are satisfyingly violent moments of physical rupture.

No one should lose sleep over whether The Hulk will make money-even though some reports have placed the budget close to $150 million. Mr. Schamus is already at work on a sequel script, and the Variety headlines are probably already printed: ” Hulk Sees Green!”

And yes, it’s true: The Hulk is a very smart movie. If it doesn’t quite leave us thinking about The Iliad and Nietzsche-as Mr. Schamus’ recent New York Times piece nudged us to do-it surely offers a stunning lens through which to view a set of binaries: innocence and knowledge, rage and pacifism, the human and the inhuman.

But let’s not get carried away. No matter how pretty or deep it is, it has its own binary to contend with: It’s a big summer tentpole movie about a large green fellow who hurls helicopters to the desert floor.

“Releasing the no-expectation sleeper hit of the year is frequently a better feeling than [releasing] the single most highly anticipated [movie] of the year,” said Lauren Zalaznick, who co-produced some of Mr. Schamus’ earliest films with him. Ms. Zalaznick runs the TRIO network for Vivendi Universal, the same company that employs Mr. Schamus, as co-president of Focus Features, Universal Pictures’ specialty-films unit.

Things Evolve

Until now, Mr. Schamus has been best known as the co-founder, with Ted Hope, of Good Machine, a film-production company that with Miramax, the Shooting Gallery and October Films, helped to transform the economics of moviemaking in the 1990′s.

Founded in 1991, Good Machine’s downtown offices gave birth to scrappy, inexpensive films by young directors like Todd Solondz ( Happiness ), Todd Haynes ( Poison , Safe ), Hal Hartley ( Simple Men ) and Nicole Holofcener ( Walking and Talking , Lovely and Amazing ).

The company’s most reliable find was Mr. Lee, whose first film, Tui Shou ( Pushing Hands ) was co-written by Mr. Schamus, and produced by Good Machine. Eat Drink Man Woman ; The Wedding Banquet ; The Ice Storm ; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ; Ride with the Devil ; and The Hulk were all Good Machine movies, and Mr. Schamus had a co-writer credit on all of them.

In 1997, Mr. Schamus and Mr. Hope added a third partner, former Miramax International vice president David Linde, who founded Good Machine International, a division that made real money handling the international sales of movies like Talk to Her , The Apostle , and-improbably but lucratively- Bride of Chucky .

The new division helped its parent company remain technically autonomous for longer than most of its contemporaries. By the late 1990′s, Miramax had been sold to Disney, October to Universal. In 2001, the Shooting Gallery folded in a flurry of finger-pointing.

But on May 2, 2002, Mr. Schamus and Mr. Linde stunned their film-world colleagues by announcing that they would merge Good Machine with Universal’s specialty-films unit, USA Films. Mr. Hope would start a new production company called This Is That and have a first-look deal with Focus.

In The Village Voice , Anthony Kaufman called it “a date on which to pin our grief” about “the death of American independent film.”

IFP/New York executive director Michelle Byrd, who has a vested interest in the proliferation and health of New York’s small production companies, was not surprised at the move.

It was a defining moment. Mr. Schamus, after all, always had a stronger stomach for industry politics. Some even suggested that this move might lead to Mr. Schamus’ ascension to the top of a whole studio like Universal.

“When one company is seen as a life force of an industry, it can only carry the weight of that mantle for so long,” she said. “Things evolve.”

“James Schamus is an incredible writer and producer and a man who truly loves movies,” said Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein through a spokesman. “So it is only natural and fitting that he would run a film company. He and David Linde are terrific partners.”

“James has always followed me slavishly,” said a garrulous Tom Rothman, who has run an independent film company (Samuel Goldwyn), a studio specialty division (Fox Searchlight), and is now chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment.

In the course of his wheeling and dealing, Mr. Schamus maintained his reputation as Hollywood’s resident intellectual. Fluent in Danish, he last year finished his Ph.D. on the Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer. Taking pleasure in good cooking, good cigars and good Scotch, Mr. Schamus is very much the Upper West Side academic; he has lived in the neighborhood since 1988 and has an energy-efficient home in increasingly trendy (and edgy) Columbia County.

Director Bart Freundlich said that his most lasting impression of Mr. Schamus came during the editing on Mr. Freundlich’s 1997 movie The Myth of Fingerprints . Mr. Freundlich remembered visiting the producer at home. The two sat outside on Riverside Drive with glasses of Scotch and talked about the films that they loved: Nashville , Five Easy Pieces .

“It was so hugely civilized,” said Mr. Freundlich. “I know it sounds pretentious, but it wasn’t. It was wonderful.”

Richard Peña, Mr. Schamus’ Columbia colleague who runs the Film Society of Lincoln Center, said that in December 2001, when the society celebrated Marlene Dietrich’s 100th birthday by screening four of her films, Mr. Schamus was so excited that he called him personally.

“He just kept thanking me so profusely, saying that this has made his day, made his Christmas,” said Mr. Peña.

An enthusiasm for Josef von Sternberg doesn’t exactly guarantee a guy a seat at the Ivy these days, but Mr. Schamus’ un-Hollywood demeanor is nevertheless accepted in a town where box office is the bottom line.

“The great thing about Hollywood, no matter what anybody tells you, is that it is an absolute, utter meritocracy,” said Mr. Rothman, considering Mr. Schamus’ unlikely dual role as urbane professor and Hollywood suit. “Nobody cares who you are, what you are, where you came from. If you make hits, that’s all that matters.”

Philosopher King

Mr. Schamus grew up in Los Angeles, and was briefly an undergraduate at St. John’s College in Maryland. But the Great Books school, where students follow a prescribed course that includes Plato and Aristotle, didn’t suit him, and he transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. There, he almost specialized in Milton before going on to get his master’s and eventually that Ph.D.

He was doing some adjunct teaching at Yale University in the late 1980′s when he met Mr. Hope, then a script reader at New Line, and they began to build the partnership that would become Good Machine.

It was around then that he was hired as an associate professor at Columbia University. He created a class called “No-Budget Producing,” which is still a part of Columbia’s film curriculum. He has also taught classes on Hong Kong cinema, B-movies and the American western. His “Seeing Narrative” class, which is so popular that students must apply, requires reading Plato and Hegel.

Mr. Schamus, who lives with his wife of 14 years, acclaimed novelist Nancy Kricorian, and their daughters Nona, 11, and Djuna, 7, in a Columbia apartment-”He has great housing!” moaned Ms. Holofcener, the director and Columbia graduate-is still a full-time faculty member at the university, and his title is now “Professor of Professional Practice.” Thanks to a special deal, he teaches a full schedule of classes in the fall and gets the spring semester off, and his pattern hasn’t changed with his new job. Director of undergraduate film studies Annette Insdorf told The Observer that Mr. Schamus has volunteered to teach a senior seminar for the first time this fall, a responsibility that will require him to guide the projects of a dozen film majors.

“He uses his brain for good, not for evil,” said Mary Jane Skalski, a producer who worked for Good Machine from 1993 to 1999. “He can talk to a 12-year-old about skateboarding stuff.”

But a retiring, bumbling academic doesn’t simply fall into a job as a studio executive.

“He’s probably got the highest I.Q. of any studio executive,” said producer Marcus Hu, Mr. Schamus’ friend and frequent collaborator. “But he could be talking about something very intellectual and then just turn on a dime and he’ll know all about marketing plans.”

It’s a thin dime. When asked once by a reporter whether his career had been accidental, Mr. Schamus replied: “I think the non-Darwinian approach to the narratization of one’s professional life would stress the accidents-but at the same time, as we all know, if it is pure accident, then there is no narrative.” A smarty-pants like that may be likely to rankle silicone-friendly Hollywood as much as he ups its average I.Q. statistics.

After Mr. Schamus’ May 11 New York Times piece about The Hulk , a Variety story gently mocked him. After quoting a snippet of the Times piece about how The Hulk would provide “the opportunity to explore a particularly complex member of the heroic tribe,” the Variety reporters wrote simply, “Whoah, dude.”

And then there was the 2000 IFP/West Independent Spirit Awards, where Mr. Schamus gave an address- cum -film-seminar that had the sun-soaked audience rushing to the oxygen bar.

When Filmmaker magazine asked Mr. Schamus to reprint the address, he wrote that “since the speech was, if I do say so myself, a bit of a bomb,” he would submit a revised version.

Mr. Schamus’ printed speech now looks prescient.

Concerned with the growth of “super transnational global media empires”-likeAOLTime Warner- which had taken to releasing independent films, Mr. Schamus urged his cohort to stop “pretending to be storming the castle when in fact ‘we’ are inside it.”

He also wrote of Todd Solondz’s controversial Happiness , which was returned to Good Machine for distribution because “the Seagram company, which owns Universal … didn’t want anything to do with the movie.”

Mr. Schamus now runs part of that company, though Seagram itself was swallowed by Vivendi in 2000.

Mr. Schamus also suggested that his colleagues should worry “not so much about ‘independent film’” as about independence itself: “the preservation of some form of civic space in which freedom of expression is … the exercise of a fundamental right.”

Mr. Schamus declined to sit for an interview, but in an e-mail, responded briefly to some questions posed by The Observer . As for how his intellect is regarded in Hollywood, Mr. Schamus wrote, “My brain is tiny compared to [ICM chairman] Jeff Berg’s.”

Because Mr. Schamus declined an interview for this report, his Vivendi-Universal colleagues-including Universal Pictures chairwoman Stacy Snider, Vivendi Universal president and chief operating officer Ron Meyer, former Vivendi Universal Entertainment chief executive Barry Diller, Mr. Linde and Mr. Hope-also declined to comment, at Mr. Schamus’ request.

Controlling the publicity around a major movie is not a unique endeavor in Hollywood. Nor is it unique for Mr. Schamus, who is known for his involvement in everything including the posters for any of the movies he produces or distributes.

A much-ballyhooed Super Bowl ad for The Hulk left fans fearing that their beloved creature would look like Donkey Kong-bulky but bouncy, altogether fake. Showing so much of the monster before the C.G.I. effects were finished was a mistake.

In his e-mail, Mr. Schamus responded to a question about the Super Bowl ad, writing: “The studio had an impossible task on its hands-how to sell a big summer blockbuster without having the film ready at hand. I think they’ve done a great job.” Repeating a phrase he has used elsewhere, Mr. Schamus called the Super Bowl–age Hulk “a zygote.”

His degree of involvement surely played into this year’s Oscar race, during which Mr. Schamus found himself at the helm of a company with two real contenders, Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven and Roman Polanski’s The Pianist . Far From Heaven had early buzz, especially for its performances, but lead actress Julianne Moore was also nominated in the supporting category, effectively splitting her chances of winning. The Pianist gathered unexpected steam midway through the Oscar season.

Focus was described in an April Variety story as having been forced to make “a Sophie’s choice” between the two films, and as having “picked The Pianist ” when it came to campaign support. Though a Focus spokeswoman maintained that the company gave equal support to The Pianist and Far from Heaven , weighing films against each other is a common responsibility for executives during Oscar season.

For Mr. Schamus, picking The Pianist would have meant a break from his past: His second film as a young producer was Mr. Haynes’ Poison in 1991.

The Pianist scored major Oscar upsets with a Best Actor Award for Adrien Brody, and a Best Director award for the exiled Mr. Polanski.

Thousandth Limo

“Look, [making films with] no money isn’t fun, despite the romance of it,” Ms. Zalaznick said, reflecting on Mr. Schamus’ rise. “You do it out of passion and ultimately joy and prestige. So now he’s added money to the mix. That is an economic necessity. It’s definitely a choice, but a necessary choice.”

But, she argued, it is important to challenge the choices of any rising star.

“When you get out of your first limo you think one thing about yourself,” she said. “When you get out of your thousandth limo you think something else. It’s the film lovers’ responsibility to challenge you. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to take the limo. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be challenged.”

But perhaps the greater challenge for Mr. Schamus will come if The Hulk is judged a hit. Some old fellow-travelers in the low-budget film world will dismiss it as expensive hackery. Perhaps more importantly, there will be those in Hollywood who wonder how much money was left on the table, what with no sex and smallish explosions.

Quibbles aside, should The Hulk pass with philosophers and audiences alike, Ms. Zalaznick pointed out that Mr. Schamus will be faced with the hardest question that Hollywood asks of its most successful men: “Who do you want to be compared to?”

Ms. Zalaznick elaborated, “Is it David Puttnam? Is it Darryl Zanuck? Is it Irving Thalberg? It’s all about the forever, you know.”

The question is whether, when challenged, Mr. Schamus-writer, professor, producer, company man, family man, Dietrich fan-just might have to choose.

-Additional reporting by Jake Brooks