Brian Grazer Is Hustling to Keep Imagine Entertainment Relevant in Ever-Changing Hollywood

Brian Grazer Variety Imagine Entertainment Changes
Cody Pickens for Variety

It’s odd to see Brian Grazer chillin’.

But there he is — the frenetic mega-producer — lounging in his sprawling backyard in Santa Monica, Calif., overlooking the Riviera Country Club, munching on a breakfast of turkey bacon and eggs over easy, drinking fresh-pressed carrot juice with a touch of ginger.

Not surprisingly the zen moment quickly dissolves.

“Oh shit, can I text Mick Jagger back?” Grazer asks a reporter, suddenly bolting upright, his gold-and-white leather encased iPhone vibrating. The two are co-producing “Get On Up,” the James Brown biopic that debuts Aug. 1. Jagger’s on tour in Europe, and they’ve missed a chance to talk. “He’s so polite and British,” Grazer confides. “You have to be like, ‘How are you this morning?’ and take a beat, and then get on with it.”

Grazer prides himself on deciphering what makes a person tick. He’s spent the past three decades peppering industry titans, entrepreneurs, rappers, scientists, Nobel laureates and just about anyone else he finds fascinating with a steady barrage of questions to quench his fanatical curiosity, and provide creative fodder for his entertainment endeavors. The producer is working on a book for Simon & Schuster with writer Charles Fishman on curiosity, and how it has impacted his life and work, which is tentatively scheduled to be published in April 2015.

Photo: Cody Pickens for Variety

Grazer’s inquisitiveness, relentless drive and penchant for storytelling in films, TV shows, documentaries and the digital arena have made him one of Hollywood’s top producers. Those attributes also have led to a best picture Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind”; three Emmys for, respectively, “From the Earth to the Moon” and series “Arrested Development” and “24”; and landed him the job of producing and retooling the 84th Oscars ceremony after Brett Ratner was booted and host Eddie Murphy walked. As composer Hans Zimmer, who has collaborated on projects with Grazer, puts it: “He’s trying to be an intelligent life form.”

Grazer, who co-founded Imagine Entertainment with director Ron Howard 28 years ago, came up in the business at a time when hard-charging producers with great material and talent connections had carte blanche at the major studios. But those days of outsized clout and ultra-rich production deals for the likes of Grazer, Scott Rudin and Jerry Bruckheimer are over. A far less welcoming environment has forced them to recalibrate their business models and scale back amid dwindling DVD sales, a challenged theatrical market and demands from corporate studio owners who prefer franchisable movies that can sell as many lunchboxes and theme park admissions as movie tickets.

To his credit, Grazer isn’t whining about the sea change. Rather he’s hustling harder than ever and relying on the same creative instincts and zeal that launched him as a young producer in the 1980s.

An eagerness to engage in every moving part of a project has kept Grazer and Imagine relevant by adapting to today’s strained economics. As studios have reduced the number of movies they bankroll, Grazer, Howard and the Imagine braintrust, led by co-chair Michael Rosenberg and a production team headed by president Erica Huggins and production chief Kim Roth, have restrategized, using their ingenuity to diversify their business and seek outside sources of capital.

Whether it’s tapping Peruvian businessman Ivan Orlic to bankroll “Pele,” about the Brazilian soccer star, or deploying Black Label Media’s Molly Smith to finance “The Good Lie,” a $15 million drama starring Reese Witherspoon, Imagine now exerts as much effort scouting for investors as it does smoking out great scripts and packaging talent.

Much has changed since the company’s early days producing “Parenthood” and “Kindergarten Cop.” And with changes have come new challenges.

“It’s easy to get preoccupied with the shift in the financial culture of making movies,” Grazer admits, comparing the lack of a sure backer and the need to hunt for financiers to riding a bobsled. “You spend a lot of time on terms and conditions that are comfortable to you, but then you have no scripts, because you’ve wasted your time trying to find financing.”

Working with that kind of uncertainty has pushed the producer and his team to refine their pitching techniques, as well as to collaborate with other production outfits and to question the amount of testing necessary for any one film.

It is much tougher for producers like Imagine to get movies and TV shows greenlit, even at their home studios. The company’s longtime overall deals at Universal Pictures and 20th Century Fox TV are not nearly as lucrative as they were five years ago. Imagine also has responded to market changes and shifts in consumer habits by inking pacts with newcomers like Netflix, and expanding its creative reach into the digital frontier. Last week, the company’s $5 million multiyear partnership with Discovery Communications to create shortform Web-based content cut its first production deals with 14 YouTube creators. An avid surfer, Grazer also is toying with an idea about a show centered on surfer brawls.

Photo: Cody Pickens for Variety

Indeed, he is nothing if not resourceful. When Spike Lee was attached to direct “Get On Up,” based on an idea Grazer hatched more than a decade ago, the director demanded a $75 million budget. Knowing that was far more than any studio would pay, Grazer shelved the project. He then thought to approach Jagger, whom he knew socially. The Rolling Stones frontman was dabbling in producing, and took Grazer up on his offer, signing onto the James Brown project and helping secure music rights. “Brian is always great fun to work with, and is an amusing, decisive character,” Jagger notes.

The two men slashed the production budget to $30 million (which earned it a greenlight from Universal) and signed up-and-coming actor Chadwick Boseman (“42,” “Draft Day”) to star, and “The Help” helmer Tate Taylor to direct. Taylor mandated the film be shot in his home state of Mississippi — in Natchez — and facilitated the creation of a bill that equalized tax incentives within the state. Grazer and Jagger helped lawmakers shepherd the piece of legislation, and sealed the deal with a visit to the governor’s mansion.

Grazer’s high-octane verve and swagger are among the characteristics that make him one of the quirkiest, most colorful figures on the Hollywood scene. His famous spiky hair seems as emblematic of his sassiness and nonconformity as it is a sign of an insatiable need for attention and recognition. His biggest fear, he concedes, is being perceived as boring. Grazer is first to acknowledge his own insecurities, and those who know him well say he’s in constant pursuit of bettering himself and of playing a key role in shaping his public image.

“Brian has made himself Brian Grazer; it has required a number of remakes,” says Tom Hanks, who has starred in Imagine movies including “Splash,” “Apollo 13” and “The Da Vinci Code” franchise. “He’s always had an eye out for grander results,” Hanks continues. “He’s extremely pragmatic about how life works, and he’s trademarked his face and his head. He’s pretty healthy now, and happy, although he’s still hellbent on some degree of self-improvement.”

Grazer is also known for being adventurous and impulsive. His pal and former Viacom exec Tom Freston recounts a story of hiking with Grazer, and telling him he was leaving in two days for a one-week trip to shoot a band in Senegal with Dave Matthews. “He was like, ‘I’m there. I’ll come with you,’ ” recalls Freston. “Just like that, he dropped everything. He was a bit of a nervous traveler though. He always worried about a terrorist attack or something. He’s a jittery guy. He worries a lot more than he should.”

The eldest of three children, Brian Thomas Grazer was born in Sherman Oaks and raised in Northridge. His father, Thomas, was a criminal defense lawyer, and his mother, Arlene, a housewife. School was a perpetual struggle for Grazer, who cited dyslexia as the cause of his straight F’s: “I couldn’t read or spell, but every day my little 4’9” grandmother Sonia Schwartz told me I was special, and that my ideas were good, and that I should keep asking questions,” Grazer says. “So I did.”

He attended USC as a psych major, and went to USC Law School for one year while working the night shift at Howard Johnson’s as a short-order cook. He also took a job as a law clerk at Warner Bros. But after a year, he dropped out of school, and was fired from the studio. He was subsequently hired by veteran TV producer Edgar J. Scherick, with whom he clocked two years. Grazer credits his tenure primarily to his golf skills, which he honed in high school and exercised during his weekly tee time with one of Scherick’s business partners.

Unwilling to take no for an answer, Grazer found himself exaggerating the truth and relying on his dogged determination to get ideas sold and projects greenlit, albeit with infrequent success. It wasn’t until he landed on the Paramount lot with a television production deal that he met Howard, who was coming off “Happy Days” and looking to become a director. The two teamed up for the 1982 “Night Shift,” followed by 1984’s “Splash,” making movie stars of Michael Keaton in the former, and Hanks and Daryl Hannah in the latter. Both films were based on Grazer’s ideas. They co-founded Imagine in 1986 and landed a studio deal with Universal the following year.

“Brian and Ron were early adopters,” says Universal Pictures chair Donna Langley. “They understand what it means to be able to work within the studio system. They’re not the most prolific in terms of numbers (of films produced), but they’re always eager to explore new distribution platforms or business models — it’s what’s kept them relevant.”

Grazer divides the world into winners and losers, and goes to great lengths to avoid being the latter. His daily routine includes drinking coffee, reading the Washington Post and former MySpace president Jason Hirschhorn’s blog, and either playing tennis, surfing or working out — and that’s before breakfast.

Although geographically it’s just 14 miles from his birthplace to Santa Monica, it couldn’t be further from his current  reality. He lives in a 10,000-square-foot home he designed, built and decorated with architect Waldo Fernandez (after purchasing a $12.5 million house and demolishing it). The property includes a $50,000 custom ping pong table (he receives weekly lessons from an Olympic coach), a freestanding art studio (where Grazer paints on the floor), a gym, screening room and circular wooden yoga deck.

Photo: Cody Pickens for Variety

He’s been married three times, and shares custody of his two younger children, Thomas, 13, and Patrick, 10, with former spouse Gigi Levangie, who lives a couple blocks away. His two older kids with his second wife, Corki Corman, are in their mid to late 20s. The producer recently got engaged to Veronica Smiley, 40, chief marketing officer at hotel management company SBE.

Grazer’s longest sustaining relationship by far is with Howard. The two insist that while they’ve naturally disagreed over the years, they’ve never once yelled at one another. “We made this unspoken pact with each other,” Grazer says. “We pledged to work hard, assert good taste, and tell each other the truth — to be gentle and always respectful. I feel he’s pretty even-handed. Normally it’s me saying, ‘I don’t like this music or that didn’t reach me on a level.’ ”

Howard has learned over the years how best to deal with Grazer to get his point of view across. “I know how to get his attention and hold it when I need to, and I can say no and lay it down for Brian,” says the filmmaker. “No matter how distracted he is, we can have those tough conversations.”

Their partnership has undoubtedly endured because of how well they complement each other and divide their duties. It also helps that while Grazer’s life revolves around his industry friends, Howard lives far from the spotlight in Connecticut, with his wife, Cheryl.

“His personal and professional (selves) are one and the same,” Howard says. “We don’t exactly do the same things. What we do during our work hours intersects. Brian rolls up his sleeves, and is a creative force on our projects.”

Grazer, however, freely admits he doesn’t like the “tedious” part of the creative process. While he enjoys visiting the editing room, he says, “I don’t want to mislead anyone; I don’t like going every day.” He also prefers leaving script reading to his team, and doesn’t spend much time on sets. But Grazer sees plenty of opportunity to create content for all platforms. He’s moving forward on a film with the working title “L.A. Riots” with John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”), who penned a script to be directed by Justin Lin. He describes it as an urban war movie.

Meanwhile, Howard remains focused on his passion — directing. He’s in post-production in London on “In the Heart of the Sea,” a $90 million adaptation of the real-life disaster of the
whaleship Essex.

Like all producers, Grazer has made some ill-fated choices, most recently with 2013’s “Rush,” and 2011’s “Tower Heist” and “Cowboys & Aliens.” And he doesn’t take failure lightly. “I like people like Jerry Perenchio (a close friend and former CEO of Univision) because he stays in his lane,” Grazers says, attributing some of his own unsuccessful endeavors to straying from what he does best.

Perhaps the biggest misstep came just after forming the company, when Grazer and Howard took it public. A market crash in 1987 sent the stock reeling, and having to clear decision-making through a board of directors resulted in lost opportunity. In 1993, they bought Imagine back from shareholders for $22.5 million.

The company has had its ups and downs in television, too. Grazer and Howard were among the first major movie producers to embrace the potential of the smallscreen, bringing a cinematic flare and feature talent to such shows as “Felicity,” “Sports Night” and “24.” The company is now busy rebuilding its series roster. “Parenthood” is in its final season, and gritty crime drama “Gang Related” has had a rocky run on Fox since its May debut, and is unlikely to be renewed.

Joe Carnahan’s Lifetime series “Those Who Kill,” starring Chloe Sevigny, was cancelled after its first 10-episode season, with the last eight installments airing on Lifetime Movie Network after being bumped off A&E. But Lifetime last week ordered the pilot “The Clan of the Cave Bear,” a co-production among Fox 21, Lionsgate, Imagine and Allison Shearmur Prods. based on Jean M. Auel’s bestseller set at a time when Neanderthals and early modern humans shared the Earth. Imagine also rebooted its Kiefer Sutherland-led “24” with “Live Another Day,” and is queuing up “Empire,” a soap opera set in the hip-hop world, from director Lee Daniels and starring Terrence Howard.

The company also took a big gamble on reviving “Arrested Development” on Netflix last year. The streaming giant and Fox are in negotiations to continue the series, which the parties hope will begin production next June. 20th Century Fox Television CEO Dana Walden says she’s grateful for Grazer’s creative input and continued commitment.

“Having Brian in the room is always a good thing,” she notes. “If there’s a problem or something needs to change, he can move mountains.”

The two are trying to crack the code on a new medical franchise. In a meeting, Grazer pitched the idea of serving that up via a Malcolm Gladwell-type character with a distinct point of view. It was exactly what Walden had in mind. “Two hours later, I got an email asking if I was available in two days to Skype with Gladwell,” Walden says. “That’s Brian. He’s quick and efficient, and has extraordinary follow-through, which is not a terribly common practice in Hollywood.”

Showtime Networks president David Nevins, who headed Imagine TV for eight years, says that those who focus on Grazer’s zany personality and short attention span underestimate him at their own risk.

“He’s craftier than he looks,” Nevins says. “Brian acts naive, but he’s not naive at all. He’s always watching.”