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Brian Grazer Rides Peak TV Wave, Builds New Empire at Imagine Television

Nobody is loving the Peak TV moment more than Brian Grazer.

For a producer of boundless energy and curiosity, the spike in demand for distinctive, high-end series is a dream come true. Grazer’s Imagine Television has been invigorated by the breadth of material it is fielding for Fox (“24: Legacy,” “Shots Fired” and “Empire”) and National Geographic Channel (“Mars” and “Genius”).

And there is more to come. The recent $100 million investment by Raine Group in Imagine Entertainment, which Grazer heads with Ron Howard, has given the company greater flexibility to pursue TV and film projects on a bigger scale. Imagine TV has been based at 20th Century Fox TV since 2000, but it also produces projects outside of 20th TV’s aegis.

Grazer, an Oscar winner for 2001’s “A Beautiful Mind,” likens the creative environment in TV today to a bygone era of the film biz.

“The great writers and directors in TV today are really the embodiment of the great filmmakers of the 1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s,” Grazer says, citing Hal Ashby, William Friedkin and Sidney Lumet as examples. “Movies have to be very, very high concept to differentiate themselves these days. … The character-driven shows on television right now are so in alignment with my tastes and interests.”

And also Grazer’s skill set. Howard Gordon, a longtime collaborator with Grazer on the “24” franchise, calls him “a quiet provocateur” who asks the right questions at the right moments.

“I’ve never known anyone so curious about the world,” said Fox Television Group chairman Dana Walden. “It’s not a coincidence that some of our most inspired projects have been collaborations with Brian and Ron at Imagine,” she said, pointing to “24,” “Arrested Development” and “Empire,” the blockbuster soap that just wrapped its second season as broadcast TV’s most-watched series in adults 18-49.

Grazer is also “exactly who you want working alongside you when there’s a problem to be solved or a piece of talent you want to attract,” Walden added. “He makes it his mission to get the job done.”

Being slightly removed from the day-to-day grind of writing and directing episodes gives Grazer a good vantage point to help keep a project on track. That’s a classic producer’s job in film, but one that hasn’t traditionally been as prevalent in TV. But it’s a role that is increasingly valuable given the 400-plus scripted series competing for the audience’s attention, Gordon said.

“Brian is always there to help us frame how the story is relevant and how we make it feel like a story that needs to be told today,” Gordon said. “24: Legacy” has been generating strong early buzz, particularly for star Corey Hawkins.

Moreover, Gordon attributes Grazer’s success as a producer to his ability to fight for his vision, but also remain open-minded and collaborative. The decision to field a new iteration of “24” without Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer came after much consideration, Gordon said.

“Brian will ask a thousand people ‘What do you think of this idea?,’ from the guy who’s parking his car to (Disney CEO) Bob Iger,” he said. “He is an astoundingly good listener, and that is something that is always in short supply in Hollywood.”

“Shots Fired” is another example. The series, which will get the midseason “event” treatment next year, revolves around the fallout from a racially charged police shooting of an unarmed man in a small Southern town. In this case, the cop is black and the victim is white, but the issues examined in the show are ripped from the headlines about Ferguson, Mo., Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin.

“I enjoy digging around the culture to get a sense of what’s real to people,” Grazer said. “I always want our shows to be about themes that have real meaning to people.”

Grazer credits Walden with suggesting the subject of police shootings as an arena with potential. And it was Imagine TV president Francie Calfo who recruited writers Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood to tackle the difficult topic in such a compelling way that the project earned a straight-to-series order from Fox.

“Francie is spectacular in terms of aligning great writers to great themes,” Grazer said of the exec who has headed his TV wing since 2010.

“Mars” is also a big showcase for Nat Geo TV, slated to air in November. The series will blend documentary material about the Red Planet with a narrative story about twin Asian girls who aspire to become astronauts. The storyline shifts from the present to the future, where only one of the girls makes it to Mars.

“Genius” is a 10-hour narrative drama about Albert Einstein based on Walter Isaacson’s biography “Einstein: His Life and Universe.” Grazer’s Imagine partner Howard is set to direct the first episode. The series, targeted to premiere next spring, is designed as an anthology vehicle focusing on the life of a seminal thinker each season.

During the period when Imagine’s new TV series came together, Grazer was also busy shepherding four movies, including Universal’s upcoming Tom Cruise-starrer “Mena” and Sony’s “Inferno,” led by Tom Hanks. And Grazer published a book on his favorite subject: “A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life.”

As Imagine TV revs up with greater diversity than ever before, the difference between working in TV and movies has been thrown into sharp relief for Grazer.

“In television you know the economics going in — you know the size and shape of the box you’ll be working in for the program and the platform it will be on,” he said. “In movies, it’s all so open-ended. And then the system compresses your idea for a glacier into an ice cube. A ‘yes’ only means yes to the next step of putting it together. In television, a ‘yes’ pretty much means yes to doing it.”

Grazer is innately a searcher, someone who’s always hunting for the next big thing. But he allowed himself a moment to reflect on his company’s strides last month on the eve of the broadcast upfronts.

Grazer ran into Walden at New York’s Polo Bar the night before Fox presented its 2016-17 season schedule to advertisers. She showed him a newly cut trailer for “Shots Fired” on her smartphone. And then she broke the news that Fox released early the next day: “24: Legacy” had been selected to premiere behind Fox’s telecast of the 2017 Super Bowl.

“How do you beat that,” Grazer said, giddy at the prospect of the show getting a huge sendoff. “It’s so perfectly compatible.”

No matter what happens on the gridiron in Houston next Feb. 5, Brian Grazer has already won the Super Bowl.

(Pictured: “24: Legacy” showrunners/exec producers Evan Katz and Manny Coto flank star Corey Hawkins and Brian Grazer)

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