EXCLUSIVE: On a day when director Ron Howard introduces Solo: A Star Wars Story to Cannes, Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer and Howard are launching another major initiative, one designed to transform good ideas into successes in narrative and documentary film, TV, VR and other platforms. Imagine Impact is a fully funded global content accelerator program that will start in Los Angeles this fall, and branch out to Latin America, United Kingdom, the Middle East and China. It core is an eight-week creative boot camp that will discover new voices and empower content creators and narrative storytellers from around the world.
While Hollywood has shown anxiety over the growing infiltration of Silicon Valley into the entertainment business, Grazer and Howard and their exec Tyler Mitchell modeled the new program after Y Combinator, which grooms aspiring entrepreneurs by incubating their ideas in a boot camp before placing them in front of an auditorium filled with 1000 venture capitalists who invest in the innovative products the VC crowd believes have the most potential for success. Mitchell will oversee Imagine Impact.
Imagine Impact will apply that 8-week boot camp formula to the creative medium. Once upon a time, Grazer had an idea for a romantic comedy where a man meets and falls in love with a mermaid. Not everybody liked the idea. But Grazer persevered, and it became the 1984 hit Splash. It helped Tom Hanks transition from sitcom to movie star. It helped Howard transition from an actor into a director, and it set Grazer on the road to become an A-list producer. It fueled their long running partnership in Imagine. They’ve won Oscars together, and Howard is here on the Croisette, launching the next giant Star Wars franchise. That is about as good a maximization of a good idea as you’ll find. What if Grazer and Howard had given up when pitching the idea and watching the eye roll of too many executives on the other side of the table?
They want to democratize a difficult entry process they said hasn’t really changed since those early days, one that can be so intimidating and imposing. They want to give the next crop of showrunners and filmmakers a shot by demystifying the process in a two month boot camp process as experts help the Creators nurture the project they will hone during those eight weeks. The potential upside is that Imagine has first look at the projects that are hatched during those eight weeks, and if the company doesn’t make a deal, the Creators are free to shop it elsewhere.
The program is set up this way. The crop of Creators will be chosen from a vetting process that begins with an online application, and those accepted will work with Shapers, a group of best in class screenwriters and showrunners, who’ll meet twice weekly as the Creators hone their ideas into first draft scripts, bibles for franchises, or pilot scripts. They’ll learn to generate quality material on the compressed time schedule that working scribes know all too well.
The pilot program, Impact 1, will begin in Los Angeles in September, and 20 Creators will be chosen to work with five Shapers, industry professionals who’ll each oversee four Creators. They will meet at the Imagine offices, to keep their projects on the path, but they will write on their own. There will be a weekly dinner for all Creators and Shapers, with a keynote speaker.
Those accepted to the program will be paid a weekly salary to keep a roof over their heads and make it possible for them to focus singularly on delivering this potential career-making opportunity in its most polished form. For its part, Imagine Impact won’t own any rights to the material during development. Those rights will be controlled by the Creators, who’ll present their projects to Imagine at the end of the 8-week boot camp. Imagine gets an opportunity for a first look. If the producer doesn’t bite, Creators own their projects free and clear and can shop it all over town. The Shapers will have meaningful upside in the projects they helped hone, the ones that are produced or financed by Imagine. The eventual plan is for the program to run multiple times per year in different countries.
Howard and Grazer said the program came from their interaction in the tech space, and talks they’ve given to the troops at places like Apple and Google. This brought into contact with Y Combinator’s Paul Graham and Sam Altman, who’ll help shape Impact as it gets off the ground. It is an entrepreneurial play for Imagine if the resulting projects lead to hit movies and shows, but it’s also clear that a big incentive is providing a foot in the door for aspiring writers, at a time when the value of content is exploding but the barriers of entry remain daunting. As part of the boot camp, Grazer, Howard and other artists will share war stories of their own triumphs and pitfalls as they stumbled their way into successful showbiz careers.
“The demand for content is at unprecedented levels, but the barriers to entry are still great,” Howard said. “We believe it is mission critical to find the most talented voices in the world and give them the knowledge, resources and access they need to succeed.”
Grazer likened the creation of a TV show, film or documentary to a startup. “You start from a white sheet of paper and you have to create value and build something out of nothing,” he said. “After meeting Sam Altman, who runs Y Combinator, the world’s preeminent startup accelerator, we felt that we could apply their operating principles to content creation. By codifying our institutional knowledge, connections and expertise over the past 30 years, we believe Imagine Impact will position artists and their stories for success, in an increasingly crowded marketplace that’s difficult to penetrate.”
Howard again: “As much as content and platforms have evolved, the way that we develop content has largely remained the same. As the demand for premium content is exploding around the world, we believe that now is the perfect time to innovate the way we develop. We believe that creating a dynamic and collaborative new development system that connects amazing voices from all realms to world class screenwriters and showrunners will generate high quality content, faster, which in turn will give artists more leverage in the marketplace and creative control over their projects.”
Imagine’s Mitchell said they were overwhelmed with the success that Y Combinator showed in birthing successful products: Y Combinator has incubated 1588 companies that are worth over $80 billion, he said. They all understand that the creation of art is different, but the whole lighting of the creative fuse is very similar.
“The idea of approaching content creation like a startup immediately clicked with me,” Mitchell said. “After spending time with the Y Combinator team, it was clear to me that the way that they develop companies, at scale, could be directly applied to developing film and television.”
Grazer added: “We believe in dreams. Storytellers are dreamers who have the ability to influence people’s lives, impact culture and even change the world. Identifying and partnering with incredible creators and developing material together in a new way is an investment that we are incredibly excited to make.
“This is very much like Y Combinator,” he said, “and we’ve invited a couple of them to be on the advisory board. This is a content accelerator, open to the world, and we hope it will produce the results that something like American Idol does. Allow people a democratized system, of getting to realize their dream, their voice and their talent. That’s it. Our obstacle course of getting in isn’t just who has the best idea, and it’s not for Imagine but rather this separate entity we’re financing. In addition to ideas, you have to have drive, curiosity, plus grit. You have to have the potential to become one of those special people that we all know, like the head writer of a television show. Why does someone get that job? Because they understand the voice of a show really well, and because they have tremendous drive and work 15 hours a day to look at every colored page. We’re just going to try to find those kinds of people and give them a real opportunity. If you think about show business, there are so many intangibles. This is a way to get your hand in to tip that jump ball.”