UPDATE EXCLUSIVE: Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer and Ron Howard have reached a milestone unusual in Hollywood: partners for 25 years. When they first got together, Grazer was a TV producer. Howard, after growing up on the small screen in The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, had only directed a couple of TV movies and the low budget Roger Corman-produced Grand Theft Auto. Grazer and Howard have been at it together ever since, building a company that over 25 years has been one of the most consistent generators of content. Their TV series output includes 24, Parenthood, Arrested Development and Friday Night Lights; their movies have grossed $13.5 billion worldwide. That includes A Beautiful Mind, which won Howard the Academy Award for Best Director. Grazer and Howard shared Best Picture Oscars that night as well. Not everything they’ve done has succeeded, of course. They they took their company public and repurchased the shares; they helped launched and fold the online venture Pop.com; their most recent film together, the adult comedy The Dilemma, was a misfire that created controversy over the inclusion of the word “gay” in a trailer. They’ve had way more hits than misses.
In honor of Imagine’s Silver Anniversary, Deadline invited Howard and Grazer to look back over their quarter century together, and into a future that includes something never tried before by anyone in Hollywood. They’re adapting Stephen King’s 7-novel series The Dark Tower into a film trilogy, and a limited run TV series in between. It has pushed the envelope enough that their longtime home studio, Universal Pictures, postponed a planned late summer start until next year and asked the filmmakers to cut the budget. Some question the studio’s resolve on such a massive undertaking. The studio has to green light the film by next month or the rights revert to Imagine, Akiva Goldsman and King, who are determined to make it regardless.
DEADLINE: Not many marriages of any kind last 25 years in Hollywood. What is most important about the anniversary?
HOWARD: It’s such a challenging time to get movies made. And yet, look at all we have coming out. Tower Heist, the Gus Van Sant movie Restless, J Edgar with Clint Eastwood and Leo DiCaprio, Cowboys & Aliens, this big broad appeal four quadrant fantasy adventure story with Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig. With The Playboy Club getting on the air, and Parenthood getting picked up, I’m proud we’re doing what we’ve always done. A wide variety of projects that got made because we care and put in the energy to get them done in light of how difficult it is these days.
DEADLINE: Simple as that?
HOWARD: Because I’m in New York, we’re not forced to stare at each other’s faces 24/7. But I think that’s not really it. We love what we’re doing, we have fun doing it and our sensibilities are in sync. In a business that can create so many feelings of anxiety and self-doubt, I learned to trust in that. Brian is smart and cares about me doing well and feeling good about what I’m doing. It’s a partnership built on support. It has been that way since the beginning.
GRAZER: It works because we have similar tastes and not only gravitate toward the same material but also what lives inside the core of the movie it becomes. We’ve done, and Ron has directed, all kinds of genres. We have a common interest in the humanity aspect of a movie, regardless if it’s a comedy or a drama. We also share a similar work ethic.
DEADLINE: When you cover all genres, does Imagine have a wheelhouse? For a company looking to last, is it advisable to have one?
HOWARD: The process is what gets Brian and me excited, whatever the genre. Not specializing has given our company a sense of flexibility and adaptability to whatever the market or the zeitgeist is suggesting. We’ve always respected each other as creative people. If Brian loves something and I don’t quite get it, I’ll tell him that but I’ll never try to impede the progress. He’s the same with me. With Apollo 13, I wasn’t sure the genre would work, because space films hadn’t done that well. Brian was instantly so excited about it, and made me realize we were onto something. 8 Mile, I don’t know anything about rap. This was something he understood. I didn’t know how to make that movie, but I recognized a great idea. Whenever the two of us get excited, on films like Splash, Night Shift and Parenthood, those have resulted in the building blocks of the company. I’ve always liked TV but I phased it out for awhile and it was Brian’s perseverance that has made us strong in both TV and films. Independent companies are rarely strong in both.
GRAZER: What we’ve do is agree on the moral center of a project, but nobody’s better at finding the language of a particular movie than Ron. He’s got a grasp of understanding new vocabularies, whether it’s the The Da Vinci Code, fantasy like Cocoon or Splash, or Backdraft and The Grinch. He is great at inhabiting a world and completely understanding and expressing its language. In A Beautiful Mind, he entered that world and understood the medical science of mental illness. So there have been times where he led the charge, and I was drawn in by his excitement.
DEADLINE: What was the last hard conversation or professional disagreement you can remember?
HOWARD: I can’t think of one offhand, but even when we have disagreements, I can’t think of a case where one of us ever said, ‘Oh, please don’t do this.’ If there’s a lot of passion from one or the other, then the support of the company is going to be there.
DEADLINE: You’ve been at Universal through your entire run…
HOWARD: I don’t know how many ownerships we’ve been through. B?
GRAZER: We started with Sid Sheinberg and Lew Wasserman. Then there was Matsushita. Then the French. Twice. Probably five or six changes of management, but we’ve been lucky to have had Ron Meyer in the middle of all that as a buffer.
DEADLINE: How has he helped?
GRAZER: He’s always been one of the most important, stabilizing forces in our career. He had been my agent and has been at Universal since Apollo 13. On that movie, everybody knew the ending, knew that Jim Lovell made it back safely. Ronnie believed the film transcended that. And we would never have gotten The Grinch rights if not for him.
DEADLINE: Didn’t you first pitch Dr. Seuss’ widow Audrey Geisel with Gary Ross directing, only to take another shot with your partner and an attachment from Jim Carrey, who’d also made his own rights pitch?
GRAZER: Good memory. I don’t remember if the first pitch was too dark or light, just that so many others were bidding and I was told I’d missed my shot. Ron Meyer created that second chance by personally calling Audrey Geisel and getting on the plane with me and Ron. And that time we got it. We were losing the rights to A Beautiful Mind and he was willing to pay a bit extra to keep them. He reads every script and knows all the talent in Hollywood and has helped us that way too. Most importantly, he has been the bridge between the business and creative side.
HOWARD: A long time ago, Brian and I went to the Allen & Company retreat and I remember listening to a panel of industry leaders of the moment, angst-ing over technology. It was TIVO or VHS, maybe. They were struggling over delivery systems, budget allotments and expectations. We both looked at each other, realizing the same thing at the same moment. Isn’t it great that all we do is tell stories? We just create content. We have to be aware of the other stuff, mainly to be opportunistic. Even though the economics of the business are challenging right now, the way that stories get delivered and the types of stories that get told is broadening. So Brian and I feel this is a most exciting time. And with Comcast, there is ownership with a tremendous appetite not only for success based on the business as it is now, but in anticipating what’s down the road. It’s going to be a little different, we’re still discovering how. We are curious and excited about participating in that exploration. So is Comcast.
DEADLINE: Back when you started with Splash and Night Shift, your ancillary product was a big clunky VHS tape. Now you’ve got Netflix streaming, VOD, eroding DVD sales, and way more pressure on an opening weekend. What looming technological development excites you?
HOWARD: There is additional global box office expansion ahead. I’m interested in all forms of content, including internet and gaming. On the TV side, cable has sparked a renaissance of the medium and that will continue for storytellers. Companies are just learning how to monetize that.
DEADLINE: When is your deal up and will you make another deal with the new Universal owners?
GRAZER: It’s up the beginning of 2014. It’s too early, we haven’t started that process yet. The Comcast business is synergistic with ours, so that is very appealing to us. They are lovers of content and that’s attractive. They respect movies and TV shows, that’s their business.
DEADLINE: You’ll soon know their capacity for risk taking when you find out if Universal will make The Dark Tower, whose trilogy and TV components make it the most ambitious project a studio has attempted since The Lord of the Rings. How important is it for a couple of guys who’ve been together for 25 years to take big swings?
HOWARD: If you’re not out there taking some risks, if you’re just coasting along with your wins, then you’re not really trying. But we never take risk for risk’s sake. The Dark Tower seemed like such a good idea to both of us that it became impossible not to try it. It’s impossible to live with ourselves if we don’t take the swing.
DEADLINE: Why does Dark Tower warrant three movies and two TV series in between?
HOWARD: The universe Steve King created is so dimensional and creative. It blends scope, sweep, and adventure with some very personal compelling stories. We could have tried to force all of it into one or two or three movies. It became clear to me that the medium of TV has become so bold and cool, we could use it to our advantage creatively and really fulfill the possibilities of this universe of characters King gave us to work with. We can use the intimacy of television when that’s appropriate, and the scope and scale of the big screen with the bigger fantasy ideas. We discovered elements that would probably never have a home either on the big screen or on TV, but would make fantastic narrative gaming opportunities that won’t rehash the movies or TV, but have its own material borne out of the books and graphic novels. We’ve got gaming designers and there is enthusiasm for that. It’s a way to use all the mediums at our disposal to try to fulfill what’s possible. Universal sees this as an asset that can benefit the company in a lot of different ways.
DEADLINE: Still, there were rumors last month that Universal might let The Dark Tower go. That hasn’t happened but they did push the start date to early next year. Why has it been so hard to get underway?
HOWARD: The first version represented a bold attempt to fast track, because of weather concerns. It was a little more dramatic to people on the outside than to us. We’d have liked to move forward on that fast track, but it was always Phase One. There was an understanding that if we couldn’t answer all the questions in a way that made sense to all the partners involved, then we would operate on a slightly more traditional timetable. Even if we go in March, that’s still moving quickly for something of this scale.
DEADLINE: You’ve been asked to bring down the budget. By how much?
GRAZER: I’m producing it with Akiva Goldsman, who wrote it to be sensitive to cost and is rewriting it to be more so. Without putting a number on it, the cuts aren’t that deep or that radical.
DEADLINE: Is Javier Bardem set to play the main gunslinger Roland Deschains?
HOWARD: Nobody is pay or play but he has said he wants to do it. We’ve spent a lot of time together. He’s fascinated by the character and has great instincts for Roland. I’m hoping when we go, he’s available and will join us.
DEADLINE: The Dilemma was an adult comedy that missed the mark. Why?
GRAZER: I just think we didn’t find the right tone. Ron?
HOWARD: We dealt with fidelity in a fairly serious, honest way and tried to extract relatable laughs out of that circumstance. If we were surprised at all about reaction to the movie, it’s that people take that situation very seriously. There was an extra dimension of discomfort with the subject that kept it from providing the escapism people look for when they go to a comedy, particularly one with actors who’ve given us some of the greater examples of high comedy in the last four or five years.
DEADLINE: The film created controversy over the inclusion of the word “gay” in the trailer. I’ve certainly heard people talk like that. How do you balance not wanting to hurt feelings with not wanting to be arm-twisted into political correctness by advocacy groups or media that likes a good controversy?
HOWARD: It’s always a function of judgment. Along the way, you screen the movie for audiences. I’m not sure more people voiced objections about that line any more than any joke I’ve been around in my career that you would characterize as edgy. Particularly because, the context was that the character is clearly committing a faux pas. Making it a part of the marketing campaign just put a light on it. Also, in popular mediums, tastes shift. Maybe with that movie, we got caught in one of those cultural shift moments. That goes with the territory.
DEADLINE: After the controversy with The Dilemma, there has been much speculation about how J Edgar Hoover’s sexuality and allegations of cross-dressing, will be treated in J Edgar, Imagine’s second film with Clint Eastwood. How is Hoover’s sexuality being handled?
GRAZER: It’s an aspect of the movie but hardly the focus. That would overtake what the real story of J Edgar Hoover was. He was the creator, the founder of the FBI. That’s what interested me. He was a dedicated American patriot, to the point he became so obsessive it turned him kind of diabolical.
DEADLINE: Clint Eastwood seems a self-sufficient filmmaker. Producing your second movie with him after Changeling, what role do you play that’s most helpful to him? I’ve heard he shoots fast, with fewer takes than most directors.
GRAZER: Our biggest role has come in bringing him scripts he likes. This was our idea, we developed it with Lance Black. Same with Changeling. Clint takes charge from there, in the style in which he’s been working for 35 or 40 years. He’s so gentle, and if your antenna is up and you don’t overstep and treat him respectfully as an artist, he’ll treat you the same way. I could just feel that certain point where he takes over, takes charge with the actors on the set and the making of the movie. I’m fascinated by how he works as a filmmaker. It’s all about first instinct. If he connects with your script emotionally, he’s likely to say yes. He makes the movie the same way. He goes with instinct on his actors and wants to capture their first instinct on the screen. He doesn’t shoot two or three takes to be frugal. It’s all about first creative instinct.
DEADLINE: Cowboys & Aliens has been kicking around as a movie idea since the late 90s. What changed to turn it into one of this summer’s biggest budget movies?
HOWARD: I found out about it four years ago. I looked at the cover of the comic and thought it was fantastic. I started asking questions and it had gone back and forth between Universal and DreamWorks. It was available somehow. I looked at the screenplays. They were good, but tonally it was a little bit tongue and cheek. I went back to Stacey Snider and Steven Spielberg and said I thought it was very hard to be tongue in cheek about the West because it isn’t a staple genre any more. Not like the 50s where there were 20 Westerns on TV and you could make fun the way Mel Brooks did with Blazing Saddles and have people remember. But it was a great adventure genre, and scifi, and I thought a more straightforward blending of the two could be a fresh idea. We worked on that and then Jon Favreau became interested. It was reborn and picked up a lot of momentum and a fantastic cast.
DEADLINE: I am going to toss out Imagine film and TV titles at you. Give me the first memory that pops into your mind. 24?
GRAZER: Kiefer Sutherland and how not only did he play Jack Bauer more successfully than anyone else could have, but proved himself to be a surprisingly talented television producer who took charge and demonstrated taste and discipline. And we’re working on that 24 feature.
HOWARD: One of those times where you feel you’ve just been given a gift. Brian and I read Peter Morgan’s play and were engaged immediately even though it was not an overtly Hollywood idea. I saw the play and committed blindly. I could see Frank Langella and Michael Sheen were spectacular and I knew I’d make the movie with them.
DEADLINE: American Gangster, a movie unplugged right before a production start with Antoine Fuqua directing Denzel Washington and Benicio Del Toro.
GRAZER: It doesn’t happen often where a movie is put back together and works. We were all so dedicated to telling this story. We fell in with Ridley Scott and he attracted this tremendous cast of Denzel and Russell Crowe. They believed in him, that he’d tell an accurate account of Frank Lucas’s phenomenal story. Even though he was a criminal, this was in its own way a Horatio Alger story. The studio was as persistent as we were.
DEADLINE: The Da Vinci Code, the biggest hit the company ever had, despite Tom Hanks’ hairstyle.
GRAZER: My memory is the lesson we learned: you don’t make critics take a train ride from London to Paris to see your movie. We made it as difficult as possible for reviewers to see the film. It’s just not the best thing to do. Along with the studio, we were pleased with the movie. The very end process, though, was a roller coaster. You should not do everything in your power to make reviewers cranky before right before they see your movie.
HOWARD: The hair part of it was hilarious. Every female on the set was saying, ‘I just love Tom’s hair, don’t you just love his haircut?’ That was the vibe on the set for three months. And then it became this hot button issue, which was kind of funny.
DEADLINE: 8 Mile, which seemed a preposterous bet on paper, with Eminem unproven as an actor.
GRAZER: I remember feeling gratitude toward his record label, Jimmy Iovine, and his manager Paul Rosenberg. Eminem is enormous talented and was so invested. He wrote all the songs, created all the music, and acted in every scene. Dedicated beyond belief and surprisingly easy to work with.
DEADLINE: A Beautiful Mind, which won Oscars for both of you.
GRAZER: Russell Crowe’s performance. He was as good as anyone could possibly be as John Nash. And then there’s my Oscar night memory, with both of us having the worst stomach aches in the world.
HOWARD: It’s pretty hard not to immediately think of Oscar night. We are both backstage waiting to do press. We’d made this movie that won Best Picture. We’d done it, we’d won. And all of a sudden I developed the worst cramping stomach pain. I never have stomach problems. Brian says, ‘Oh, you’ve got a stomach ache.’ He pulls out some Tums. Tears off half a roll and gives the other half to me. I thought, we are living the Hollywood version of the Life Saver commercial. The Tums worked.
DEADLINE: How The Grinch Stole Christmas, with Jim Carrey?
HOWARD: Huge challenges. From getting the rights when Ron Meyer flew with us to La Jolla and we came back with what would become the number one movie of the year, to Jim’s bravura performance. Carrey’s work was physically demanding, creatively approaching genius, and that’s the reason the film has become an evergreen. I have kids come up to me, quoting lines every Christmas. Not from the book or Chuck Jones’ cartoon. From the movie. Everybody was challenged, but not like Jim. I don’t know that anybody has created a fantasy character that was as challenging, intricate and entertaining as his Grinch was.
DEADLINE: The Nutty Professor, with Eddie Murphy playing not only the title role but almost an entire family sitting around the dinner table.
GRAZER: We’ve worked with Eddie several times and we just saw a cut of Brett Ratner’s Tower Heist with Eddie and Ben Stiller. It’s fantastic. I remember that it only took Eddie about a week to channel all those characters. He’s a little bit of a savant. It was his idea to play the Nutty Professor as fat. The minute I was able to accept that, that he would be a character with one disability of being overweight but otherwise was this funny charming guy, he screen tested for the studio and showed what he could do.
DEADLINE: Apollo 13?
HOWARD: One of the real highlights of my career, on so many levels. Interfacing with so many people who were involved in the space program. And being able not only to tell that story but also let people understand what the Apollo era was about, and how these people achieved so much with so little, technologically, during that period. At mission control, at home and in the capsule. It was an honor and such a tremendous filmmaking opportunity full of challenges, some physical, some technical and some narrative.
DEADLINE: Parenthood, now a series but one of the first imagine comedies that delved into adult themes?
GRAZER: My memory is of Ron calling me one day, with a few sentences on what he wanted to do. He had a complete vision about what these few sentences would turn into. He said, I want to do a portrait of an American family. I said, what does that mean? He said, it looks to be one thing. But there’s dysfunction in every family, even the ones that look perfect. It became a look at the extended American family and kind of a seminal movie.
HOWARD: Brian said, instantly, you’ve got to chase that. It was one of those times both of us saw it right away and pulled in the same direction. It’s probably still my most personal film. All of us, including the writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, were right in the middle of that period of our lives where we were learning what it was to be a parent navigating those waters. You asked if Imagine has a wheelhouse and Brian mentioned emotion and humanity. I think that is it, and it’s why we’ve had such great actors. We’ve tried to make our movies to be driven by relatable characters. Karen Kehela, Kim Roth, Erica Huggins and Michael Rosenberg, who’ve seen so important to Imagine over the years, have all helped us keep that as our wheelhouse. And Michael has made sure our heartbeat has been in the marketing so people understand that what we’ve done is truthful. Parenthood is a good example of where that really came across.
GRAZER: That theme is what has gotten us great actors, and we owe a lot to them, many of whom we’ve worked with Russell Crowe twice, Tom Hanks five times, Eddie Murphy six or seven times, Denzel twice and Steve Martin a couple of times. And some great directors like Ridley, Spike Lee, Clint, Oliver Stone.
HOWARD: It was Brian’s original idea and a real challenge to get going. It was so important for both of us, our first real studio film. Imagine didn’t exist then, but our partnership was galvanized there because it was so difficult getting that movie made.
GRAZER: We were competing with another mermaid movie what was hard for me was, it felt ridiculous, the thought of even making a mermaid movie. If you really thought about it, it seemed like it could be a bad idea.
HOWARD: Brian said to me, it’s not one movie, it’s several different movies. It’s a romantic comedy, but there’s broad comedy, and then there’s a fantasy element. I just don’t know. And I said, exactly! It’s great!
GRAZER: Well, it took Ron to make a mermaid movie plausible. It was our biggest success at the time, and it really solidified Ron as an important movie director. It led to ten years of comedies like Parenthood, Liar, Liar, Nutty Professor and The Grinch. And then we decided to add more serious films and that led to Ransom, Apollo 13, Inside Man, American Gangster and 8 Mile. We learned you could look at the world both ways. Nutty Professor is about someone with a handicap, and so is A Beautiful Mind. One was comedic, the other serious, both had humanity. But the foundation started with Splash.