Imagine to stay at Universal

New deal extends through 2013

Universal Pictures will reup Imagine Entertainment for five years, keeping partners Brian Grazer and Ron Howard in the studio fold through the end of 2013. Imagine’s current pact with Universal expires next year.

Deal establishes Imagine as the producer with the longest run in Universal history, eclipsing that of Amblin before Steven Spielberg became a partner in DreamWorks. The relationship goes back to 1986 and encompasses more than 50 films that have grossed more than $12.6 billion worldwide. (Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso likely holds the record for longest studio deal in town; it’s been at Warner Bros. since 1976.)

Keeping Imagine in the U fold was a team effort spearheaded by Universal Studios president-chief operating officer Ron Meyer and U Pictures chairman Marc Shmuger and co-chairman David Linde.

“Brian and Ron have been our close friends as well as colleagues, and we’re thrilled that we will continue working together. Imagine is a key component of our strategy, our slate, and our culture here at Universal,” said Shmuger and Linde in a joint statement. “We’ve made some terrific movies together; the variety and scope of Imagine’s slate is really unprecedented. They are fearlessly inspired and we love being in business with them.”

Shmuger and Linde have now extended the deals of their two most prolific producers, after previously reupping Working Title partners Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner.

Press speculation had Imagine in play and possibly headed to Paramount because of Grazer’s friendship with topper Brad Grey. Grazer and Howard said there was little fire behind the smoke.

“We had options, but never really explored leaving, and at best we had cursory discussions about financing,” Grazer told Daily Variety. “We’ve been at Universal going on 21 years, and we go back with Ron Meyer to ‘Apollo 13.’ We’ve had long relationships with Ron and Marc and learned quickly that David is a strong executive who loves movies. These are the people we want to be with in the trenches.”

Grazer and Howard said reupping also keeps them focused on a plethora of development projects that includes at least four films Howard hopes to direct over the next few years.

Deal comes after Imagine wrapped the Ridley Scott-directed “American Gangster,” starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and the ensemble comedy “Kids in America,” with Topher Grace, Anna Faris, Dan Fogler and Teresa Palmer.

Production begins Aug. 24 on “Frost/Nixon,” the screen adaptation of the Peter Morgan play. Howard will direct the co-production of Imagine and Working Title Films.

Eastwood starts production in October on “The Changeling,” a co-production of Imagine and Malpaso that will star Angelina Jolie, and Scott will direct Crowe again next year in “Nottingham,” a revisionist take on the Robin Hood legend.

Brett Ratner is prepping a Russell Gewirtz-scripted heist movie with Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock that takes place in Trump Tower, and Ratner also will direct a biopic of Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner. David Goyer is writing and directing “The Invisible Man,” and Crowe will make his feature directing debut on “Bra Boys,” based on the documentary about a group of Australian renegade surfers.

Imagine’s also producing “Cowboys & Aliens” and a Paul Attanasio-scripted adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel “East of Eden.”

While Howard is booked to direct and Grazer to produce with John Calley the “Da Vinci Code” sequel “Angels & Demons” for Columbia Pictures, Howard has several Imagine-generated potential directing projects at U. These include remakes of the French thriller “Cache” and the ’70s sci-fi cult film “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” as well as an adaptation of the Claire Messud novel “The Emperor’s Children.”

Any producer-studio relationship has its ups and downs. While a summer berth for “Cinderella Man” left a worthy film largely ignored at Oscar time, Universal reassembled “American Gangster” after unplugging an earlier version over budget shortly before it was to begin production. Grazer said the studio also backed less obvious bets, from the schizophrenic tale “A Beautiful Mind” to Eminem’s screen debut in “8 Mile.”

And despite the critical acclaim and a bidding battle for rights to “Frost/Nixon,” neither of the leads, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, is a movie star.

“It’s not a pure genre picture or even something that is easy to market, but the studio has been completely supportive at every turn, and we all looked collectively smart when Frank won the Tony Award,” Grazer said.

The pact extension leaves open the possibility that Grazer and Howard could add a financing element to the mix. They didn’t sound that eager, perhaps because the one time they took Imagine public, the process of answering to shareholders proved so time-consuming and draining that they bought back the outstanding shares and returned the company to private status.

“If there was some financing piece that could fit in and be compatible to our Universal deal, we might entertain it,” Grazer said. “Ron and I went through that once. It’s enough of a challenge just to make good movies and TV shows. From the production side with Donna Langley and Jimmy Horowitz, to marketing and distribution with Adam Fogelson, Eddie Egan and Nikki Rocco, there was good reason to stay here.”

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