EXCLUSIVE: Imagine Entertainment chairmen Brian Grazer and Ron Howard have started an innovative offshoot program to supplement the films they make. In an effort to streamline the movie development process, they’ve thinned the ranks of creative executives and will instead empower entrepreneurial producers who ordinarily take their marching orders from those gatekeeper execs.

Imagine has begun a “Pod” system of producer deals that will start with Now You See Me producer Bobby Cohen, and Julie Oh, who in 2016 joined Imagine as New York-based vice presidents of development and will now be a producer there. Imagine’s core movie business will continue to be steered for Grazer and Howard by Karen Lunder, who in August was named EVP and empowered to oversee the projects that Grazer and Howard produce, and Howard directs.

Ron Howard Brian Grazer
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Cohen, Oh, and several others who are in negotiations to join will come under the Imagine umbrella in producer deals. They will be responsible for generating films exclusively for Imagine. They will be paid upfront salaries, and will draw fees from Imagine’s back-end participation. Essentially, producers will bring their ideas to Imagine at an early stage. If Grazer, Howard and Lunder spark to them, Imagine will lend its clout and financial resources. If they don’t, the producers will generate others that garner more enthusiasm.

It is the latest change in a year full of them for the 32-year old company. Imagine this year has launched Imagine Documentaries, a joint venture with Animal Logic on family films, and also Impact 1, a division meant to incubate new talent in film and TV. The pod producer initiative is similar in spirit to the latter, in that it democratizes the development process by eliminating layers of execs that producers need to get past at every step of the development process. Grazer and Howard believe the new system might be a remedy to the development hell that often results. The goal, they said, is to generate more movies under the Imagine banner.

“We are reinventing our approach, in reaction to what we’re seeing out there on the landscape,” Howard told Deadline. “Instead of having a stable of executives, what we’re doing is building a stable of relationships with producers. We’re creating a much more entrepreneurial environment around the finding, developing and making of our movie projects. We hope it democratizes the movie making process and expands opportunities. Similar to Impact, it’s empowering a spirit of projects driven by creative passion. These are the first two of what will be a number of pods, maybe as many as five or more we expect to put into place. We’re excited about attracting talented, self-motivated entrepreneurial people to launch projects with us that are driven by their passion and excitement and possibility. Bobby and Julie are two people we have a lot of excitement about working with. We hope this is the beginning of a new way of tackling the movie side of our business.”

Grazer recalled how the producing business was when he broke in, banging down doors on the early projects like Splash when no studios believed in them. He is challenging Imagine’s pod producers to show the same level of pluck to get more projects made that don’t follow a formula.

The benefit to pod producers?

Karen Lunder
Lunder
Courtesy photo

“They get paid,” Grazer said. “Basically what we’ve done in the past is, we’ve paid four movie executives, one piled atop the next. Underneath that pile of executives would be a submission from a producer or a writer. And it would have to find its way through a hierarchical vertical, to the top. We’ve deconstructed that. Instead of vertical it will be horizontal. We’ll have Karen Lunder, who worked personally on some of our very personal projects that were meant for me to produce or for Ron to produce or direct. With Julie, Bobby and two or three others that we want to bring aboard, they’ll get paid, they get an office and assistant depending on their place in the industry. These will be five spirited, entrepreneurial producers who can tap us if they want to, but they don’t have to. They’ll have a direct line to get their projects made based on their passion and sense of transparent survival. The same way that I started, 30 years ago.”

Cohen has a long track record as an executive, and as a producer. He has worked at Miramax, ran Red Wagon for Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher, and the Secret Hideout shingle of Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci. He most recently was co-president of production at Lionsgate. Beyond the Now You See Me films, his producing credits include the upcoming Jacob Estes-directed Blumhouse film Only You with David Oyelowo and Storm Red, Rounders, Bounce, Clerks, Beautiful Girls, The Cider House Rules, View From The Top, Jarhead and Memoirs of a Geisha.

Oh previously worked for Scott Rudin Productions and then The Weinstein Company, where she oversaw films including Carol, The Giver, and the musicals In The Heights and Pippin before they were extricated from TWC before its Chapter 11 plunge. She was exec producer of the New York Spring Spectacular at Radio City for Weinstein Live Entertainment, and associate producer of Finding Neverland on Broadway. She was exec producer of the Lionsgate comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me. For Imagine, she is producing the feature adaptation of Rent creator Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical Tick, Tick…Boom! that Lin-Manuel Miranda will direct, and the Vanessa Taylor-scripted adaptation of the bestseller Hillbilly Elegy, which Howard plans to direct.

The pod producers will work exclusively for Imagine, and they will know early on which projects the company wants to back. Imagine has the option to invest directly in getting them made.

“What we’re doing is spending our time and energy in picking these people, but not putting them under a bunch of executives or spent a lot of time evaluating their projects,” Grazer said. “We’ll pick them, and they’re going to pick their projects, and they are going to sink or swim based on that success.”

That is a daunting challenge, but Howard said that in the best case scenario it will empower producers in a way they haven’t been in a long time as they worked within the traditional studio system.

“We will choose what we want to do, but we don’t tell them what to do,” Howard said. “They will work on the things they care about. As Brian suggests, the outcome of that is something we will evaluate down the road as we continue to build this roster of pods. The questions will be: are we going to invest in it, and to what degree, and that’s a decision that Brian and I and Karen have to make as it relates to the Imagine movie business.

“This is a time when great producers are being limited,” Howard said. “We do believe that a producorial belief and imprint is something that is very valuable but has been under-supported. We’re betting strongly on something we both believe in, that producers can and should be real impact players. That begins with fighting for projects they believe in, not projects they’ve been handed by a bureaucracy. This is about projects they love and we’re trying to encourage those opportunities. We’re in conversations for more of these deals, and right now we want to empower Bobby and Julie, and for the community to know they have resources behind them.”