Lisa Bunnell, president of distribution at Focus Features, will receive this year’s Bingham Ray Spirit Award at ShowEast. The award was established in 2012 in honor of the late Bingham Ray and bestowed annually to an individual who has shown exemplary foresight and creativity in the world of independent film.
“It is with great pleasure that ShowEast will honor Lisa with the Bingham Ray Spirit Award,” said Andrew Sunshine, president of the Film Expo Group. “Lisa’s passion for independent film has brought some of the most successful, important, and talked-about indie films to the masses. We congratulate her on this well-deserved honor.”
During her tenure at Focus Features, Bunnell has overseen all domestic theatrical-release plans and bookings for Focus Features and has been responsible for the theatrical release of multiple Academy Award–winning films.
Prior to joining Focus, Bunnell spent 10 years as vice president of film for Landmark Theatres, where she programmed the chain’s 261 screens in 26 markets throughout the country. She got her start in the cinema business with Loews Theatres, where she worked in the film buying department in the circuit’s New York City office for 17 years.
Boxoffice Pro talked with Bunnell ahead of ShowEast to learn more about her career and the current state of specialty distribution and exhibition.
Take us back to your first years in the film business: How did you first enter the industry and what are some of the early lessons you took with you to your subsequent roles?
I started working at Loews Theatres while I was still in school; I spent over a decade working for them. When I started there, I was working with exhibition legends like Frank Patterson and Bernie Myerson. It was baptism by fire. I learned a lot in a short period of time. For me, it was a strong message of learning as much as you can from as many people as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and don’t punch a time clock. Be ready, willing, and able to put in the extra time to get the job done right. That’s a mantra that I carry with me to this day.
Looking back on your career, what have been some of your proudest achievements in the industry?
When I look back, I think first about the theaters that I worked to open when I was at Loews Theatres: Lincoln Square, Boston Common, and Georgetown to name a few. As a film buyer, it has always been about championing smaller films and holding them for long periods of time to make sure they have the proper chance to be seen: films like Man on a Wire, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and Whiplash. It’s not always easy to take care of these more specialized films.
At Focus I have been able to work with so many amazing filmmakers. Highlights for me are Spike Lee winning his first Oscar for Blackkklansman. The film was certainly one of the most rewarding films that I ever had the honor to distribute. Working with Paul Thomas Anderson and having Phantom Thread get six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Director. For many years, I have had a Sid and Nancy one sheet in my office. So, when Gary Oldman won the Oscar for Darkest Hour, he came to the office the day after the awards to thank all of us at Focus. He signed my Sid and Nancy poster that day. It was really amazing and so special for me.
What makes me the most proud is when I feel that we have truly given a filmmaker a chance to have his or her vision shown on the big screen. I am honored that I have the chance to be able to make that happen in exhibition and in distribution.
Who have been some of the colleagues and mentors that have helped you get to where you are today?
Travis Reid at Loews Theatres—without him I would probably still be living in New Jersey, working in retail. He encouraged me when it wasn’t easy for a woman to break through in our industry. He gave me the opportunity to prove myself. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Ted Mundorff, he saved me when Loews was taken over by AMC. My love was always for film buying. He took me on at Landmark Theatres. Working with Ted was an amazing and educational experience. There were many of the “New York ladies” who encouraged me when I was growing up in the industry—Linda Ditrinco, Janet Murray, Sheila DeLoach, and Bobbie Peterson among them. They accepted me, educated me, and made me feel welcome. I will always be grateful to all of them. Jim Orr—we have known each other for a long time from our days at Paramount and Loews. After years of working together, when the Focus distribution job came up, he was the one who recommended me. Today I am lucky enough to work in the Focus family, led by Peter Kujawski. We truly all work together to bring filmmakers’ visions to life on the big screen.
After a bumpy awards season at the box office in 2021, what are your expectation for this fall and winter’s box office for the specialty market?
I am optimistic about the specialty market. As we see moviegoers coming back to theaters at more normal levels, we are also seeing the specialty market getting stronger. There needs to be consistent quality of product in the specialty space; I think we are going in the right direction with the lineup that is being offered through the end of the year. There are going to be quite a few terrific films this awards season that I feel will help spark the specialty box office.
More film festivals are coming back with in-person events this year. What role do they play in helping drive and promote a theatrical release?
It is wonderful that we are seeing in-person events now at film festivals. It’s exciting to see the talent come out again to celebrate their titles with moviegoers. I think it helps create more excitement around their theatrical releases. We have seen well-reviewed films and wonderful reactions to the films in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto this year.
New York and L.A. continue to be dominant players, but the specialty market has grown beyond the coasts. What other DMAs have emerged as hubs for specialty film?
I think that the specialty market has been growing beyond the coasts for years. Social media has taken us to another level in our ability to get films effectively throughout the country. Markets like San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Austin continue to grow stronger.
Taking a cue from the recent Focus/Universal CinemaCon presentations, what have been some of your favorite movie theaters throughout your life?
My favorite theaters have been single-screen theaters—I love the old movie palaces. One of my favorite theaters to book when I was at Loews was the Uptown in Washington D.C. When I go to the movies now, I prefer to go to the Village Theatre or the Bruin in Westwood.