Lisa Bunnell, president of distribution at Focus Features, will receive this year’s Bingham Ray Spirit Award at ShowEast. The award was created in 2012 in honor of the late Bingham Ray and awarded annually to an individual who has demonstrated exemplary foresight and creativity in the world of independent filmmaking.
“It is with great pleasure that ShowEast will honor Lisa with the Bingham Ray Spirit Award,” said Andrew Sunshine, President of Film Expo Group. “Lisa’s passion for independent cinema has brought some of the most successful, important and talked about independent films to mainstream audiences. We congratulate her on this well-deserved honor.
During his tenure at Focus Features, Bunnell oversaw all theatrical release plans and domestic bookings for Focus Features and was responsible for the theatrical release of several Academy Award-winning films.
Prior to joining Focus, Bunnell spent 10 years as Vice President of Film for Landmark Theaters, where she programmed the chain’s 261 screens in 26 markets across the country. She got her start in film with Loews Theaters, where she worked for 17 years in the film buying department of the circuit’s New York office.
Boxoffice Pro spoke with Bunnell ahead of ShowEast to learn more about his career and the current state of specialty distribution and exposure.
Take us back to your early years in the film industry: how did you get into the film industry and what are some of the early lessons you learned in your later roles?
I started working at Loews Theaters when I was still in school; I spent over a decade working for them. When I started there, I worked with exhibition legends like Frank Patterson and Bernie Myerson. It was the baptism of fire. I learned a lot in a short time. For me, it was a strong message to learn as much as possible from as many people as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t punch a score. Be ready, willing and able to put in the extra time to do the job well. It is a mantra that I carry with me to this day.
Looking back on your career, what are some of the accomplishments you are most proud of in the industry?
When I look back, I first think of the theaters 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’s always been about championing small films and keeping them for long periods of time to make sure they have a chance to be seen: films like man on a wire, Exit through the gift shopand Whiplash. It’s not always easy to deal with these more specialized films.
At Focus, I got 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 I have ever had the honor of distributing. Working with Paul Thomas Anderson and having ghost yarn get six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. For many years I had a Sid and Nancy a sheet in my office. So when Gary Oldman won the Oscar for darkest hour, he came to the office the day after the awards ceremony to thank all of us at Focus. He signed my Sid and Nancy displayed that day. It was truly amazing and so special to me.
What makes me most proud is when I feel like a filmmaker has really been given the chance to see their vision shown on the big screen. I am honored to have the chance to make this happen in exhibition and distribution.
Who were some of the colleagues and mentors who helped you get to where you are today?
Travis Reid at Loews Theaters – without him I’d probably still be living in New Jersey, working in retail. He encouraged me when it was not easy for a woman to break into our industry. He gave me the opportunity to prove myself. He believed in me when I did not believe in myself. Ted Mundorff, he saved me when Loews was taken over by AMC. My love has always been for buying movies. He hired me at Landmark Theaters. Working with Ted has been an amazing and educational experience. There were a lot of “New York ladies” who cheered me on 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 welcomed me. I will always be grateful to them all. Jim Orr – we’ve known each other for a long time from our days at Paramount and Loews. After years of working together, when the Focus distribution position presented itself, he was the one who recommended me. Today, I have the chance to work in the Focus family, led by Peter Kujawski. We really all work together to bring the filmmakers’ visions to life on the big screen.
After a bumpy box office awards season in 2021, what are your expectations for the box office this fall and winter for the specialty market?
I’m optimistic about the specialty market. As we see moviegoers returning to theaters at more normal levels, we are also seeing the specialty market strengthen. There must be consistent product quality in the specialized area; I think we are heading in the right direction with the programming that will be offered until the end of the year. There are going to be quite a few great movies this awards season that I think will help boost the specialty box office.
More film festivals are returning with in-person events this year. What role do they play in driving and promoting a theatrical release?
It’s wonderful that we now attend in-person events at film festivals. It’s exciting to see the talent come out to celebrate their titles with moviegoers. I think that helps build more excitement around their theatrical releases. We’ve seen well-reviewed films and wonderful film reactions in Venice, Telluride and Toronto this year.
New York and Los Angeles continue to be dominant players, but the specialty market has grown beyond the coasts. What other DMAs have emerged as hubs for specialty films?
I think the specialty market has been growing off shore for years. Social media has taken us to another level in our ability to effectively get movies across the country. Markets like San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, DC, Boston and Austin continue to strengthen.
Taking inspiration from recent Focus/Universal CinemaCon presentations, what have been some of your favorite movie theaters throughout your life?
My favorite theaters are the single screen rooms – I love the old movie palaces. One of my favorite theaters to book while at Loews was Uptown in Washington DC. When I go to the cinema now, I prefer to go to the Village Theater or the Bruin in Westwood.