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Producer Brian Grazer Keeps Mental Issues on the Mind

For Imagine Entertainment co-founder Brian Grazer, mental health considerations are front of mind when developing new projects. For “A Beautiful Mind,” it was schizophrenia, while his two most recent films, “Pele” and “Get on Up,” about the Brazilian soccer legend and James Brown, respectively, he said were “on the perimeter” of addressing mental illnesses.

“James Brown grew up very disadvantaged and didn’t really have parents that were present or around, and he was beat up in a burlap sack as a 5-year-old,” he said. Pele “found his way out of extreme poverty in the favelas of Rio,” Grazer added.

Grazer has dyslexia and in 2012 was honored by the Child Mind Institute, a New York-based organization involved in children’s mental health issues. He’s since expanded his involvement with the organization.

Thursday morning, Grazer will be in the company of NBC’s “Parenthood” creator Jason Katims, director David O. Russell, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos and president of the Child Mind institute Dr. Harold Koplewicz to discuss ”How Film and TV Can Change the Lives of Children.”

Variety spoke to Grazer ahead of the event.

Variety: Why choose to highlight mental health issues in your films?

BG: I think they’re important themes that are entertaining and engaging and worthwhile. Anytime we have a chance – we felt like we dealt with the fragile nature of how a boy’s psyche works in “Friday Night Lights” – we talk about it. It creates so much shame and further debilitates you that to create greater awareness and empathy for anyone who has anything like that through film, we’re in that universe.

Although mental health is an important topic, you are also in the business of entertainment. How do you merge the two?

We all orbit around stories, whether in digital content or half-hour comedies or hourlong shows. We create and manufacture engaging stories. By understanding the psyche of characters, what they want and what they are afraid of, audiences can be captivated. “Homeland” and Claire Danes’ character, for example, that character is empowering. Organically, in a story, if it works, that’s a good thing.

When do you think entertainment turned from avoiding mental health issues to incorporating them into stories?

It’s easier to root for someone with a noble goal than someone without one. That’s in Plato’s “Republic.” Everybody wants to make successful movies and television shows, and, this is really crass, but nobility within them usually (means they) test a lot higher. I remember when we were testing “Apollo 13,” and it was an hour too long and a rough cut, but there was a nobility and patriotism and it scored very high. People want to escape into movies and feel good about themselves doing good. It’s a positive self-image thing, and it’s just easier to root for them.

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