Howard, Grazer make Imagine work

Long-distance partnership proves successful

Imagine Entertainment amounts to Hollywood’s most enduring long-distance bro-mance.

Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, who formed the company in 1986 after successful collaborations on “Night Shift” and “Splash,” have survived being located on different coasts, taking their company public only to buy back all the shares, and overseeing a failed launch of an ahead-of-its-time Internet venture called Pop.com.

They’ve also scored enough hit movies to be the equivalent of cleanup hitter in the Universal Pictures producers lineup. Unlike many production companies formed with a movie star or director as its catalyst, Imagine is not defined by Howard-directed hits. There is enough room for each partner to carve out an identity, as evidenced by Grazer’s recent appearances in American Express card commercials and the fixation over his hairstyle by blogs.

How have they made a marriage work, with Grazer ensconced in Hollywood and Howard on his Connecticut farm?

“We basically have the same tastes, the same work ethic,” Grazer says. “Even though we go a different way to get there, we end up in the same place creatively. We have respect for one another in areas that really matter, and we never take each other for granted. He’s been in New York and Connecticut for 20 years, but we’ve lived with each other’s thought process for so long that sometimes I think our communication is telepathic.”

Howard says there is much that Grazer brings to the relationship. He’ll be brutally honest in his opinions of Howard’s work, and his work ethic allows Howard to not feel responsible for Imagine projects he’s not directing. “Changeling” was originally developed as a Howard directing vehicle, but when Clint Eastwood took that job, Grazer and his staff did the heavy lifting. Same is true for films like “American Gangster,” “Inside Man” or upcoming projects such as the pic Spike Lee will direct on the L.A. riots of 1992.

“I’m only ever helping on those films, and maybe this is one reason Imagine works,” Howard says. “I get all the help I need, but I really take responsibility for my stuff, try to make it as easy on the company as I can, and not be an energy drain. If a director wants me to see a cut, I’ll rush in, and Brian and I talk about the films. I stay involved, but primarily my job is to find films that mean something to me, and ultimately will mean something for the company.”

If the partners disagree on a project, they keep it behind closed doors.

“There were projects I did that I know Brian never liked, and he’s pushed through movies that I never believed in 100%,” Howard says. “I wouldn’t say what they are because the point is, those are our conversations. All it has to be is one of us saying, I can’t not do this, and then the other person is right there. We’ve also learned that when we both feel that way, to make that the company priority, because generally it means we’re onto something.”

That even includes Pop.com, the online venture they launched with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Howard’s humorous Obama endorsement film, which got millions of viewings on FunnyorDie.com, was exactly the kind of short original programming they envisioned.

“The technology really wasn’t there, and the Internet bubble burst back then, but it was exciting to finally be able to do the thing that intrigued me about that medium where, if you have minutes of free time, you can find something that briefly entertains you,” Howard says.

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