ron howard inferno bts
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

As Ron Howard completed his turn from actor to director a couple of decades ago, he thought of the greats he would like to emulate, such as Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, and Mike Nichols. To the former child star, those masters had at least two qualities in common: They varied their subject matter, and they didn’t sit still for long between projects.

Howard appears to be living the métier of his heroes, with a packed schedule of eclectic directorial offerings: “Inferno,” the latest of three thrillers drawn from the Dan Brown series of novels, arrives in theaters at the end of the month, while “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week,” a documentary on the glory days of the Fab Four, is continuing an art-house run that began in September. Meanwhile, Howard has begun work on the kickoff episode of “Genius,” an anthology series for the National Geographic Channel that marks his first time directing a scripted program for television.

“I have never been busier or more challenged in interesting, diverse ways than I am right now,” says Howard, 62, whose array of winning films runs the gamut from comedies like “Splash” and “Parenthood” to historical dramas like “Apollo 13” and “Frost/Nixon.”

Howard’s willingness to try new things is epitomized by the relationship that he and Brian Grazer, his co-founder and co-principal in Imagine Entertainment, have forged with National Geographic. Following an increased investment last year from Fox, the National Geographic Channel has refocused its mission, and the Imagine partners are at the front of the line in helping the channel fulfill its plans.

gavin bond/august images

“Ron and Brian were really the first people in Hollywood to embrace our new strategy and vision of National Geographic as a leading destination for premium content around science, adventure, and exploration,” says National Geographic Channel CEO Courteney Monroe.

In addition to “Genius,” Howard led the Imagine team putting together “Mars,” a series that debuts Nov. 14 on National Geographic, about exploration and the eventual colonization of the Red Planet. It is a hybrid of documentary and scripted forms. Although Howard is not lined up to direct any “Mars” episodes, his fascination with space made him a close participant in the project; he did everything from picking the director, Everardo Gout (“Days of Grace”) to taping an interview with space entrepreneur Elon Musk.

“Genius” will debut next spring with a 10-part examination of Albert Einstein. Inspired by the Walter Isaacson biography “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” it stars Geoffrey Rush, with the first (and perhaps future) episodes directed by Howard.

“Ron and Brian really helped us make this turn toward being more premium and more creatively ambitious,” says Monroe. “I sleep much better at night knowing that the two of them are sharing their talents with us.”

On the big screen, the renewal of Howard’s collaboration with Tom Hanks for “Inferno” might seem like a return to form, but the director says this thriller is a true departure from its predecessors, “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons.” While the earlier films saw hero “symbologist” Robert Langdon (Hanks) confronting ancient mythology, “Inferno” tosses in the contemporary issue of overpopulation. It also presents Langdon with a personal challenge — amnesia — unlike anything he faced in the earlier stories. The images and clue path for the story come from Dante’s “Inferno,” and it’s not much of a leap — given Langdon’s frayed mental state — to suggest that the hero is experiencing his own version of hell.

“The crisis this time is really more contemporary and immediate,” Howard says. “And Langdon’s condition is diminished, like he has one arm tied behind his back, which becomes part of the mystery. That differentiated this one, and gave Tom a lot to play with.”

Will Howard direct a fourth Dan Brown thriller? The performance of “Inferno” might provide the answer. While 2006’s “The Da Vinci Code” became the director’s biggest commercial hit, with $758 million in receipts worldwide, “Angels & Demons” bagged just $486 million three years later (and, with a budget of $150 million, cost $25 million more to make).

But “Inferno” is starting out ahead, in a sense, as it cost just $77 million to make. The substantial savings — under tight-fisted Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s motion pictures group — means the film can have a box-office fall-off from “Angels” and still stand a chance of showing a profit.

Brown is expected to announce the next installment of his book series soon. And when it’s published, Howard promises he’ll be “a very eager reader.”

On the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum is “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week.” Howard became involved in the project after it was brought to his attention by Nigel Sinclair, a veteran rockumentary maker who was an executive producer on the race-car thriller “Rush,” which Howard also directed.

A major fan of the group since he saw them on “The Ed Sullivan Show” as a grade-schooler, Howard couldn’t believe his good fortune. The September junket that rolled out the film took him and the two surviving band members, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, to the famous Studio 2 at Abbey Road, where some of the Beatles’ greatest recordings were made.

Big Collaborators
Ron Howard has directed three movies based on the novels
of Dan Brown.
$758m Worldwide gross for 2006’s “The Da Vinci Code,” on a budget of $125 million
$486m Worldwide gross for 2009’s “Angels & Demons,” on a budget of $150 million
$77m Estimated budget of 2016’s “Inferno”

“I realized they hadn’t been together in that room since those days,” Howard says. “They were having this incredible moment together, which I stayed completely out of. But what a thing to be able to witness.”

On the surface, there might not appear to be much connective tissue between the Beatles documentary and the National Geographic projects. But Howard sees parallels.

“There is kind of a purity of understanding and a depth of creativity in the Beatles’ work and some of the ‘eureka’ moments and breakthroughs that Einstein was experiencing,” says Howard, who won an Oscar for directing the 2001 biopic “A Beautiful Mind,” about the brilliant but troubled mathematician John Nash. “So it’s all really exciting territory to get to explore.

“Sometimes the achievements can be almost taken for granted,” he adds. “There is an idea that they were born to arrive at these discoveries, that it was inevitable. But when you look more closely, we have found there is usually a great deal of drama and tension and even suspense around the outcomes. It’s a unique challenge to live inside these minds.”

It’s not clear what Howard’s next feature will be, but he has a few projects in the works. He has been developing, with Disney, Neil Gaiman’s children’s novel, “The Graveyard Book,” the story of a boy raised by ghosts after his family is killed. And he could be reuniting with his “Apollo 13” writer, Bill Broyles, for the Skydance movie “Seveneves.” Adapted from the Neal Stephenson sci-fi epic, it’s about seven races of humans who flee Earth; their descendants attempt a return 5,000 years later.

Funding such projects should not be a problem: Earlier this year, Howard and Grazer’s Imagine took on new investments, led by $100 million from the Raine Group, the New York-based merchant bank. The funds give Imagine even more freedom to explore new content and platforms.

“We want to tell more stories across all platforms and own more of what we produce,” says Howard. “It’s very logical and very exciting, and with Raine we’ve found partners who can help us make a lot of interesting new directions possible.”

The expansion comes at an ideal time, as the 30-year-old Imagine Entertainment continues to evolve with the changing media landscape.

“Technology has initiated a real shift, and it’s been tough on some old paradigms,” Howard says. “But within that confusion, I’m finding there are new possibilities and really rich creative opportunities. So I’m loving it.”

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