EXCLUSIVE:When Imagine Entertainment partners Brian Grazer and Ron Howard re-upped in their 26th year at Universal in early 2012, like all studio term producers they watched the deal get smaller. They also went from exclusive to first look and while that might have humbled less energetic founders who’d made 50 films for the same studio, Grazer and Howard took it as license to tap into new avenues of distribution and funding to be more productive than ever.

Consider that while Howard tinkers with the finished Formula One drama Rush and casts the Warner Bros adaptation of the Nathaniel Philbrick novel In The Heart Of The Sea with Chris Hemsworth, Grazer is on the Croisette, beating the drum for a Pele biopic to be directed by The Two Escobars helmer Jeff Zimbalist and his brother Michael. Grazer and production president Kim Roth called the film a close cousin to the search for genius depicted in 8 Mile, only here it’s a dirt-poor kid’s journey from being part of the Shoeless Wonders (a band of soccer wunderkinds too poor to afford shoes) to a phenom who at 17 led Brazil to the World Cup. Grazer and his partners will have the film ready by the time the world is whipped into a frenzy for World Cup action next year.

* While they’ve temporarily halted the move to turn Jack Bauer loose in a 24 feature, they’ve instead decided to bring him back in a limited series, this after selling an Arrested Development revival directly to Netflix. Grazer tells me they are absolutely moving forward with a movie version of another Imagine series, Friday Night Lights, and they will likely use crowdfunding to directly tap the rabid fan base of that drama for some of the budget. “We made a terrific feature with Pete Berg, turned it into a terrific TV series and will now make a movie from that series,” Grazer said. “I’m not sure such a thing has been done before.”

* A year after starting the Imagine Reliance Writers Lab program and enlisted nine writers to work on scripts and collectively trade ideas to help cohorts the way TV scribes do, Imagine and partner Reliance have 15 make-able scripts they are setting up. One is in production — the Philippe Falardeau-directed The Good Lie with Reese Witherspoon and a script by Margaret Nagle — and among the others is an ambitious reboot of the iconic bloodsucker Lestat from Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire. Scripted by Lee Patterson and godfathered creatively by Alex Kurtzman & Bob Orci, Grazer and Rice and her son Christopher, they have a script they all like, and are in talks with Universal to make The Body Thief. That is the fourth book in Rice’s series, a tale that finds Lestat bored with immortality. He switches bodies with a human for 24 hours, and after relishing the feeling of emotions, conscience and morality, he discovers his trading partner is a psycho doing awful things, and who won’t give back Lestat’s immortal body. “It seemed the best way to relaunch the franchise, because Lestat is such a larger than life vampire than the one who started the mythology,” said Imagine co-president of production Erica Huggins.

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Really. . . "A year after starting the Imagine Reliance Writers Lab program and enlisted nine writers...
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Yes Avatar is such an intelligent movie. It really asks deep questions about humanity blah blah blah....
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They should do it for TV. or mini series.

* After getting rejected by two studios on an ambitious multi-platform treatment of Stephen King’s seminal novel series The Dark Tower, Grazer, Howard, Akiva Goldsman and King streamlined their original ambition to adapt nine volumes into three features and two limited-run TV series. Now, Media Rights Capital is committed to make a single movie with Russell Crowe as the gunslinger Roland Deschain, with more movies coming if the first gets results. This isn’t set in stone, as Grazer tells me that he has just been approached by a Silicon Valley investor willing to finance Dark Tower as originally constructed, Now it’s a matter of deciding what path to take.

Catalysts for all this activity are Roth, Huggins and Imagine president Michael Rosenberg, and the array of backers and formats have prompted Grazer and Howard to refer to their company as “Imagine 2.0.” Like many vets, they’ve had to remake themselves to adjust to a world where overhead deals are drying up at studios that make fewer movies. But they’ve also quickly discovered that you can get a lot more done, faster, if you become more entrepreneurial and take advantage of all the funding and distribution opportunities in an age where digital is viable, global box office is more important than ever, and where you can throw a rock on the Croisette and hit a billionaire looking to back projects. There’s no need to rely on one studio when there are so many more backers who can say yes.

When I ask Grazer and Howard if it was initially disorienting to have to shop harder, each sounded more energized than cowed. “I never felt we had it easy, and I’ve always viewed the first ‘no’ as my starting point,” Grazer said. “That goes back to our first film, Splash, when everybody said no to a mermaid. We’ve been hearing it all our lives, but since this is about getting your movies made, I’ve never taken ‘no’ personally. To me, that simply tests the strength of the project you want to make.” Howard said they’ve always tried to internally self-scrutinized projects before taking them to Universal, but added that “having to put in extra effort defending your projects to these potential partners is demanded by the current economy of the business, and it’s not a bad thing. To pretend these things don’t apply to us would be smug and short-sighted.”

Being changeable extends to that Writers Lab program. While it elicited promising scripts from the nine writers in the program, Howard and Karen Kehela Sherwood (the longtime Imagine exec who ran it) will improve the model next time around. Having grown up in TV, Howard long wanted to try a collaborative work-shopping system that could help alleviate writer’s block and the solitary prison that surrounds screenwriters by incorporating a free-flowing exchange of ideas from writers working on their own scripts. It’s as promising as he thought it could be, but it will be done different next time. “We learned a lot in our rookie season, but our batting average can be higher, and we probably developed too many comedies when we are looking to international financing to set these movies up. This was fun and exciting, and it validated my feeling that writers could flourish from this environment, and still retain that singular voice. “

Imagine has hardly stepped away from the big-ticket feature, and has numerous ones that are ready to go at Universal.

* That includes Made In America, a film that Howard shot for Imagine and Participant Media, as Jay-Z last year curated the Budweiser Made In America music festival on his home turf in Philadelphia; there is James Brown, a film on the Godfather Of Soul that will shoot late this summer with The Help’s Tate Taylor directing. Grazer, Mick Jagger and the Brown estate are producing a film that will likely discover an actor to lip synch the original masters of Brown’s hits around the tale of a wild life.

* They’ve locked Relativity Media to back The Most Wonderful Time, a film that shoots in September with Jesse Nelson directing the Steven Rogers script, with Diane Keaton, Alan Arkin, and likely Annette Bening, Liam Hemsworth and Amanda Seyfried starring as members of a dysfunctional family that returns home for Christmas with secrets and enough collective drama to spark a holiday ticking time bomb.

* Front and center for Howard is In The Heart of The Sea, the story of a raging whale that became the inspiration for Melville’s Moby Dick. It then becomes a harrowing survival tale as stranded survivors of the split ship try to figure out how to stay alive in uncharted waters. Battling thirst and hunger, cannibalism is on the menu when shooting begins in September.

“It’s a very inspiring combination of narrative pulses in the whale and the survival tale that was the genesis story of one of our great novels,” Howard told me. “It works on visceral and emotional levels, and while it has always been a tremendous challenge because of the water work, technology has made this more reasonable. It’s a big bet for any company, but the technology has made it less expensive than 12 years ago when I prepped a version of Sea Wolf. We could never get a budget in place and we can actually do this movie for less than that budget was so long ago.”

After that comes a line of big projects that have been percolating awhile. At Universal, Will Smith will star in Colossus, based on the D.F. Jones novels that inspired the 1970 film Colussus: The Forbin Project; MRC put The Dark Tower back on track; Disney is backing a Josh Zetumer-scripted adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book for Howard to direct and Grazer to produce with Gil Netter and Ben Browning and Michael Maher’s Start Motion Pictures; and there is the Robert Ludlum thriller The Parsifal Mosaic, which David Self adapted for Imagine and Captivate at Universal. There is also the Kyle Ward-scripted Arabian Knights being done at Universal with Blacklight Transmedia, and the Jon Krakauer true murder mystery Under The Banner Of Heaven, which Dustin Lance Black adapted for Howard to direct, with Grazer producing along with Jason Bateman, Stephanie Davis and Krakauer for Warner Bros.

“When Brian and I first formed Imagine, we only dreamed it would be the kind of company that could work in all mediums,” Howard said. “The movie business isn’t going anywhere, it’ll find its footing in this new landscape. But there are so many possibilities brimming in TV and internet that while it’s challenging, it certainly has left both of us excited.”