In just over a year, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment has stealthily assembled a slate of nearly 20 documentary feature and TV series projects, with distribution partners such as Netflix, Showtime and Apple TV Plus in place.
The prestigious lineup features filmmakers and producers including Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Amy Berg, Morgan Neville and Howard himself. The subjects range from deep dives into icons like New York gossip queen Cindy Adams, star chef José Andrés, and former NBA star Dwyane Wade (now an agent), to penetrating looks at guitar hero Carlos Santana and last year’s wildfire that devastated Paradise, Calif.
Imagine’s documentary unit was founded in September 2018 and is headed by former RadicalMedia executive Justin Wilkes and longtime HBO Documentary Films senior vice president Sara Bernstein. The pair have been pulling their weight in an established film and television production company that has been investing heavily in development and output in all areas, including original animation. Wilkes and Bernstein attribute the power of the content they’ve amassed to the value of the Imagine brand and to the overall explosion of documentaries in the digital age.
“It is incredible how much we’ve been able to get off the ground,” says Wilkes. “It’s a testament to the marketplace right now: There’s such enthusiasm for premium nonscripted content from A-list talent.”
Imagine Docs is signed to a first-look deal with Apple TV Plus, but Bernstein says there is “great excitement over the variety of homes for these projects. We want to be bespoke, and I think we’re in a very exciting new frontier where these services and networks all have different needs.”
Bernstein and Wilkes say their mission is to create watercooler fare that’s as flashy as that of their scripted sister division, pointing to TV ratings hits like “24” and “Empire.”
“All of these fully integrated companies, Disney and everyone else, they’re really about one thing, and that is ‘How do we create a conversation?’” says Grazer.
While box office success can be hit or miss in a theatrical marketplace where superhero films are crowding out movies that don’t feature people in capes and tights, the demand for docs on SVOD and subscription-based platforms continues to grow. Netflix says 20 million households streamed its Fyre Music Festival documentary, “Fyre,” in April, its first month of release. Disney Plus boasted about being home to National Geographic as much as it did about content engines Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm, ahead of its Nov. 12 launch.
Chief among the new projects Variety can exclusively reveal is a return to the doc space for Scorsese, currently on the awards circuit with Netflix’s “The Irishman.” The legendary director is headed to familiar turf: the 1970s New York music scene. Scorsese and Mick Jagger were creators on “Vinyl,” a scripted HBO series about the era. Plot details are under wraps, and Imagine is negotiating with a distributor.
Also for the unit’s feature-length slate, Howard will direct a film about Andrés and his nonprofit World Central Kitchen organization. The proprietor of top restaurants like Jaleo, Barmini and The Bazaar has become a food-based first responder, traveling the world to feed survivors of natural disasters and helping to rebuild communities.
Music great Carlos Santana will participate in a documentary about his life, which will examine his trailblazing fusion of Latin American jazz and rock ’n’ roll. The project is seeking a director and will cover Santana’s contributions to the recording industry while also highlighting his compelling immigration story.
Imagine has additionally sold a documentary series currently titled “History of Gossip” to Showtime. It centers on veteran New York Post columnist and woman about town Cindy Adams. The writer, whose dispatches always end with the sign-off “Only in New York, kids, only in New York,” will share her archives and her life story, inevitably touching on the figures she and the Post made famous and infamous (President Trump being among the more prominent).
Netflix has also acquired two series from the company. The first is from Joe Berlinger, director of the smash-hit doc “Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” and the scripted feature “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” both of which hit the streamer in 2019. The untitled series is described as a gritty and meticulous study of some of America’s most notorious haunted locations.
“Justin, Sara, and the Imagine team have quickly built a first-rate division working with many of the industry’s top documentary filmmakers. We’re excited about the rich and compelling series coming to Netflix and look forward to sharing these with our members around the world,” says Gabe Spitzer, director of original documentaries at Netflix.
The second program is from director Rudy Valdez and producer Berg, an Oscar nominee for the film “Deliver Us From Evil,” about sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The series, described as “Friday Night Lights” in an outer borough, is about an underdog football league in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville (largely considered the deadliest neighborhood in New York).
“As Showtime Documentary Films produces more and more documentaries that speak to the political, social, cultural and, frankly, emotional priorities of the country and the world, it’s invaluable to have partners who share a similar sensibility,” says Vinnie Malhotra, the cable network’s executive vice president of nonfiction programming. “Justin and Sara share that vision and are such astute partners, given the wealth of experience they bring with their multi-hyphenate backgrounds.”
These projects join previously announced heavyweights like a serialized examination of LSD proponent Timothy Leary from DiCaprio and his Appian Way banner; “Dads,” a heartwarming look at fatherhood around the globe from Bryce Dallas Howard and set up at Apple; a delicious take on Julia Child from Julie Cohen and Betsy West at CNN Films; the Wade doc at ESPN Films; and a development property centering on jazz giant Louis Armstrong.
“One of the key reasons Brian and Ron wanted to build a documentary division was that they wanted to give story tellers an opportunity to share their passion on subjects that would both entertain and educate at a time where there seems to be a greater sense of thirst for information around the world,” said Michael Rosenberg, co-chairman of Imagine. “And the new platforms and technology give the content more ways to reach the global population.”
Howard, speaking from the set of his upcoming Netflix film “Hillbilly Elegy,” says: “The kind of impact these subjects and films have, the feedback we’ve been getting on stuff like our “Pavarotti” documentary, it feels as if we had released a big theatrical feature. We’re seeing the same resonance and at the same time doing something that feels like an organic extension of our careers and sensibility.”