“I was pretty hot in TV and my boss Michael Eisner and Barry Diller thought ‘F*ck you. We’re firing you!’ … I was kinda getting kicked out of the TV business, but was writing this mermaid movie called Splash,” said Brian Grazer to a packed house last night in Culver City at Entrepreneur Night hosted by “social university” IVY, which has been holding a series of talks with the nation’s CEOs to inspire the next generation. Grazer said he was fired after he produced projects like The Ten Commandments, a 20–hour mini-series on TV at the age of 25 years old (not mentioned on his IMDB credits).
But after getting fired, he turned his attention on getting his mermaid movie made. Grazer’s perseverance, he said, was because of the lessons he learned from his maternal grandmother, Sonia Schwartz. A dyslexic Grazer received only D’s and F’s on his report cards in school, but still she kept boosting his self worth by telling him that he was special and his curiosity was going to get him places. He used all the ‘isms’ that his grandmother told him, like ‘Think Big, Be Big’ and put them into the movie Splash, which not only became a huge box office hit but also was nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay for its four writers. He has plans to remake Splash now with Channing Tatum.
Grazer also told a poignant story about losing the Best Picture Academy Award for Apollo 13 (after being nominated for nine Oscars) to Braveheart in 1996 and how he was so embarrassed because he got up to actually accept the award after presenter Sidney Poitier opened the envelope and started with the sound “Br” (as in Brian and Braveheart) and then called out ‘Braveheart.’ He had to turn around and go back to his chair, totally humiliated.
As he was walking back, he looked over to see a studio chairman put a big “L” on his forehead and mouth ‘Loser’ to him. When he settled back into his seat, Astronaut/hero Jim Lovell reached across to him and grabbed his wrist and said, “You know I never made it to the moon either.” The story and the emotional meaning of what Lovell was saying was completely lost on the very young (mostly 20-something) audience who laughed uproariously as Grazer tried to compose himself from the memory of that moment.
Grazer spoke to a very attentive, standing-room-only audience about his first job out of college, landing as a law clerk at Warner Bros. Not long after, he got the assignment to get some legal papers to Warren Beatty. So he went to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel (Beatty lived for many years in the penthouse there) and verbally pushed his way past the assistants and met with him for about an hour. “I thought, this is amazing, I could do this job,” said Grazer.
He said he used similar tactics to get to talk with William Morris power agent Sue Mengers and also The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty. He did this for two months. After executives around him in the studio’s legal department were fired, he said a big office opened up right outside the office of the vice-chairman of Warner Bros. He began lobbying for the space and got it. After which, he started calling other studio chairmen and bigwigs at TV networks on his telephone speaker box, “inventing my own little scam.” He told people he worked in Warner Bros.’ business affairs and asked to meet them. One by one, he started meeting the heavyweights.
He finally got into meet the legendary Universal head Lew Wasserman on the 15th floor of the Black Tower by talking up his assistant in the parking lot. When he got up to the 15th floor, Wasserman came out to see him, put his hands up as if to say, ‘stay back.’ “He could see right through me that I was totally fully of shit,” recalled Grazer. “He said, ‘Look, I’m going to say hello to you but that’s about it. He goes into his office and comes back with a No. 2 pencil and a legal tablet. He put the pencil and paper in each of my hands and said put the pencil to paper and it is worth more … it has greater value than in separate parts … I realized what he was saying is that … I have to manufacture leverage … the invention … manufacturing of ideas.”
The producer, who is partnered with filmmaker Ron Howard in Imagine Entertainment, is now highly successful in both TV and film. “If you have some humility … you have to create a community every time you make a movie or television (project). And since, I’ve produced over 100 movies and like 500 to 600 hours of television … each one of those is an entrepreneurial effort to start up from scratch,” he explained to the young group of social university followers at Platform where the talk was held.
“I’ve used my curiosity to learn about morals.” He researched and learned about hip-hop before he produced 8 Mile, which starred Marshall Mathers (Eminem). “(The movie) was really about self-worth. A lot of my movies and television shows operate on a thematic — a reason for being,” said Grazer, who said he likes themes about self-worth and love. “I have a very short period of time to make a movie because it will cost $500K to $700K a day to make a big movie so that time is extremely perishable.” So, he said, you have to get every element right (he also likes happy endings).
When producing the Denzel Washington-starring American Gangster in 2004, he was abruptly sidetracked when the studio fired everyone off the movie (reportedly because of the rising budget). “I had Denzel Washington and Benicio Del Toro and a different director (he didn’t say it, but it was the helmer Terry George) and the studio fired everyone two months before the movie was going to shoot. It was a $30M write down which would have been the biggest write-down of any movie even before the movie had gotten released or made. Having been turned down by every studio on the mermaid movie, I thought, I’m not going to let them turn me down. But then I was told that GE who owned Universal doesn’t want to hear the word ‘American’ and ‘Gangster’ in the same phrase ever again,” said Grazer, who was really depressed because he had worked on the film for about five years.
“American Gangster was about respect and about Corporate America,” he said. Twenty-four hours after the movie was nixed, he began repackaging the film. He re-signed Denzel, signed Russell Crowe (who he had already worked with on other films) and eventually got Ridley Scott (after pitching him repeatedly) and then went back to the studio with a package they couldn’t say no to.
He said curiosity has been his capital and has helped him throughout his time in Hollywood. On the sequel for the comedy The Nutty Professor, he said he shifted the entire marketing effort after talking to five guys in a skateboard store who said they didn’t care about the movie because TV spots contained a bunch of old people.
“There was a $50M buy and the tracking numbers were not doing well, but the spots were really funny. I asked these kids what movies they wanted to watch and they never said The Nutty Professor. I literally changed the entire machine of Universal and said we have to show young people in our ads. It opened twice as big as the first one because we shifted to a young demographic.” The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps opened to $42.5M domestically in 2000 while The Nutty Professor opened to $25.4M in 1996.
The Ivy has brought together a number of “thought leaders” to speak to their membership; those have included everyone from former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, the former CEO of Avon Andrea Jung, college professors from Harvard and others like Trevor Nielsen, co-founder and president of the Global Philanthropy Group. They currently host events in seven U.S. markets with plans to go global.