MOVIES : Imagine That : Riddle: How can a person be in the spotlight and still be in the shadows? Answer: Check out producer Brian Grazer's career

"Hey dude! What's happening, dude . . . groovy, groovy ."

This is the sound of producer Brian Grazer at work.

At the moment, he's schmoozing on the phone, part of the game of cultivating agents, directors, studio executives and some of the biggest actors in the business for movies made by his company, Imagine Films Entertainment.

Grazer is perhaps the state-of-the-art Hollywood producer of the '90s. He knew "Kindergarten Cop" wasn't a thriller, as originally conceived, it was a comedy, and what made it funny was the counterpoint of kindergartners and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He insisted that Steve Martin's tormented dad in "Parenthood" needed, as Grazer happily recalls, "some memorable scenes where he scored ," which led to Martin's comic turn as the cowboy at his son's birthday party, "shooting those six-guns, doing that whole giant set-piece--which (was) of course in our trailer and TV spots." Grazer carefully nurtures his friendships with such actors as Martin, Tom Hanks, Michael Keaton and Tom Cruise, and he uses his Hollywood clout in, well, unconventional ways.

For example, he takes meetings with the 1987 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry--Donald Cram of UCLA. A Nobel winner? "I'm like a guy who's totally driven by curiosity," Grazer says. "Culture, language, social, music, fashion. Whatever it is, I want to know what it is." A few months ago he hired (though later fired) a Harvard MBA to systematize the process. "His sole job (was) to think about me 20 hours a day," Grazer notes. "His job description (was) 'Make Brian Grazer smarter.' "

This skinny, almost hyperkinetic, Evian-sipping producer is, at 40, co-chairman and co-CEO of Imagine, a public company he founded six years ago with director Ron Howard. Yet in a world of image, his own is still a blur. Surrounded by celebrity names, his is not quite there yet--certainly not on a par with his partner, the 37-year-old former child star who was Opie Taylor on "The Andy Griffith Show" while Grazer was in grade school in Sherman Oaks. And that pains Grazer, particularly when his credits are projected onto Howard. Nevertheless, Thursday night in Las Vegas, the National Assn. of Theater Owners/ShoWest will honor Grazer as Producer of the Year; past recipients include Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg.

With Howard mostly on movie sets and in editing rooms, it is Grazer who essentially runs the company, tracking Imagine movies from first concept, through development and production, to TV ad and theater trailer. The partners, who met on the Paramount lot in 1980, consult daily and see each other about twice a month.

Starting with "Night Shift" (1982) and "Splash" (1984), Grazer's first pre-Imagine movies whose story ideas or concept s he conceived and then produced with Howard as director, Grazer also has had a hand in launching the movie careers of Hanks, Keaton, Meg Ryan, Daryl Hannah, John Candy, Johnny Depp, William Baldwin and of 11-year-old Anna Chlumsky of "My Girl."

So far Imagine has made a dozen movies, and Grazer has produced or co-produced most of them, including its most profitable movie, "Parenthood" ($99 million domestic box-office gross); "Kindergarten Cop" ($91.5 million); "The Doors" ($32.7 million), and "Backdraft" ($77.6 million). "Parenthood" and "Backdraft" were directed by Howard.

In his wraparound windowed aerie in Century City with a view that encompasses the ocean, Mt. Wilson and the Hollywood sign, Grazer dictates the day's order of business to his elegantly dressed assistant, Linda Magee, reeling off a cornucopia of names. "I got to call Eddie Murphy without fail, say 4 o'clock my time. Oh, that's the meeting with Jodie Foster . . . I want to send a letter to Macaulay Culkin and Kit Culkin (Macaulay's father). Just say it was great meeting you in New York, my kids loved meeting Macaulay on Saturday, and once again thanks for doing the ('My Girl') video. . . .

"Did you call (Brandon) Tartikoff's (Paramount) office? I want to set up lunches with Tartikoff, with Mark Canton (Columbia). . . . Had lunch planned with (Jeffrey) Katzenberg (Disney) but we both have to reschedule."

Grazer was to be in New York the next week, where production on "Housesitter," a romantic comedy with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, was just ending, and production was beginning on "Boomerang," a romantic comedy starring Eddie Murphy as a veteran playboy who meets his match when he falls for his boss.

Along with "Far and Away"--a sweeping period romance set in Ireland and Oklahoma featuring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, directed and co-produced by Howard--that makes three major movies for Grazer and Imagine opening this spring and summer. "Far and Away" and "Housesitter"-- based on a Grazer story idea about a jilted architect and the beautiful con-artist who moves into his vacated country house after a one-night fling--are being released by Universal where Imagine has a long-term deal. "Boomerang" is at Paramount because that's where Murphy's deal is.

Reading from a thick black leather datebook as ever-present as the camera on his belt--he wears the camera he got on location in Ireland so "I can chronicle my life"--Grazer continues the duty list. "I got to get gifts for 'Housesitter' so they have it," he chuckles mischievously, "in their hot little hands the morning it wraps. One for Steve Martin, one for Goldie, one for (director) Frank Oz, and then something for Dana Delany--something that makes them feel good with a little note. . . .

"I want to call Michael J. Fox," he adds. "I want to call Laura Dern. I want to call (director) Joel Silver. I want Gavin (Grazer's younger brother) to buy me another surfboard."

At a staff meeting Grazer learns that lunch with a leading rap star has been canceled. "Canceled? Oh man! He didn't read the script? Who set up the meeting? . . . That guy's such a loser. Everything he does is wrong. That's why he's a failure because he (screws) everything up." When David Friendly, Imagine's president of production, says the person who arranged the lunch would phone, Grazer snaps: "Who?. . . Call me? To say he's sorry? . . . Cut him off and tell him to reschedule."

Still later, chatting by phone with a leading actor he doesn't want named in print because that would "intrude on" friendship and privacy: "I'm still your best friend, aren't I? Say it. I need reassurance . . . all right! How do I come see your new pad? . . . I (rented) this place. I have a giant kids' room for when they sleep over with all the Disney (stuff), and it's completely engulfed in all types of foliage, incredible trees, fantastic pool (and) a nice (ocean) view. . . . Maybe (I'll find) a rustic canyon with a view of the ocean. Or maybe right next door to you. "

Two days later Grazer is at the house in Santa Monica. Electric-train tracks belonging to his son Riley, 6, dominate the upstairs living room. Brian and Corki Grazer, who also have a daughter Sage, 3 1/2, are separated; she filed for divorce last spring.

Grazer and Friendly are on the speaker phone with Howard in Connecticut, dress-rehearsing their "pitch" of movie projects they will take to Tom Pollock, chairman of MCA motion picture group, at Universal. The half-dozen or so projects dealt with, they move to the "Far and Away" trailer. "Tom Pollock liked the images," says Grazer gleefully. "But he doesn't know how much better images there are. It's like here's a guy who saw like a big plate of ice cream. He doesn't know there's a big hot fudge sundae behind the door."

From "The 'Burbs," Imagine's modest debut in February, 1989, through "Backdraft," Imagine-developed movies in the last three years have accounted for about 25% of Universal's gross box-office receipts, a rather sizable chunk for a single company. Before becoming chairman of the studio in 1986, Pollock had been Imagine's lawyer. In return for first-look at all of Imagine's developing movies, Universal distributes Imagine movies it has green-lighted and pays for two-thirds of the production costs; the remaining third is picked up by Showtime.

The five-year deal, which anchored Imagine at a time when an increasing number of production companies and even studios have gone belly-up, is not exclusive. "My Girl," a surprise box-office success with grosses above $55 million, was produced for Columbia; "The Doors" for Carolco.

Along with a few not-too-costly financial losses ("Cry Baby," "Opportunity Knocks")--as well as "Closet Land," a small, politically correct movie about torture of political prisoners--Imagine also produced "Problem Child," a lower-budgeted comedy that turned into Universal/MCA's most profitable movie in 1990.

Though the deal with Universal does not come due until next November, Grazer and Howard caught the industry by surprise Dec. 20 by announcing they had "serious reservations" about continuing to head up Imagine. Among the options they outlined in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing were leaving the company, selling it, extending employment for a limited term, or some other "extraordinary transaction" that would take the company private.

Some see this simply as a negotiating ploy. Together Grazer and Howard own 55% of Imagine stock. Universal has warrants on Imagine stock of about 24%, which if exercised would bring the partners' portion down to about 42%. Universal pays Imagine a fee plus a percentage of the profits for its product, though the exact terms are confidential.

Returning a quick call before leaving for a holiday in Deer Valley, Utah, Grazer sounded upbeat--or at least he was putting a very good face on the situation: "Look, Ron and I have been extremely successful, right? So whatever happens will be good."

Yet within the industry Grazer is sometimes overlooked. And when they are linked, Howard is perceived as the good cop. "With actors, with creative people, we're both good cops," explains Grazer in interview. "With agents, lawyers, business managers I'm the bad cop. It means I have to say 'no' to people and be kind of combative, be a warrior, and fight for all the things I think Ron and I are entitled to and our company is entitled to, and try not to get screwed on the deals.

"I trust my (creative) judgment, and I don't equivocate," adds Grazer. "I'm totally impervious to rejection. When someone says 'no' to me, it has no relevance to my reality. I just keep trying. . . . Well 'Splash' is the best example--seven years to make 'Splash.' Everyone said 'No.' " He laughed. "Everyone says 'Yes' to me now."

Grazer has a keen sense of hierarchy--the one person for whom he ushers a writer out of his office when he phones is Michael Ovitz, head of Creative Artists Agency and Hollywood's premier power.

As for friendships with actors and such, Grazer talks about connecting on "value system" and "work ethic," then adds: "I don't think I'm like the funniest. I think I'm quirky. I'm always like the brunt of the joke. Like Oliver Stone loves teasing me, and Cruise would tease me and Schwarzenegger. I take the work pretty seriously, so I let people go, 'Brian, where were you last night?' I offer a little comic relief."

Although he has been around the industry since the mid-1970s, beginning on the fringes of Hollywood as a $5-an-hour clerk at Warner Bros., his image to a degree is still that of the quintessential young man in a hurry.

"Over the last stretch of years he's been up there on top (with) a very small percentage of successful producers who produce broad-based movies that a lot of people seem to want to see," sums up ICM's president Jim Wiatt, who played a key role in getting Grazer and Eddie Murphy together. "He's got very strong opinions about things, about people, and he's not shy about letting you know them.

"If there's any fault with Brian," adds Wiatt, "it would be that he tends to be kind of flippant sometimes. I think everyone's always thought of Brian as this young upstart . . . sometimes his unbounding energy rubs people the wrong way. It's taken people a long time to take Brian as seriously as they should."

In best-case scenario, hearing Grazer talk, as many as 10 other movies are being slated for production at Universal in 1992. Still he cautions: "I'd say six . Maybe more. I just want to be conservative."

"There are no larger (independent production companies) either in terms of volume or in terms of success," says Universal's Pollock. "Results is what differentiates him. His batting average is exceptionally high. It's like what differentiates Jose Canseco from other batters."

"He has his own creative ideas and they're good ones," says Howard, "and he has good sensibility in terms of film. He goes into a meeting with an actor or a director--once they kind of get past this ball of energy that's bouncing around the room sometimes, his ideas speak for themselves."

"One of Brian's great strengths," says entertainment lawyer Peter Dekom, who is on Imagine's board, "is that he really knows how to get talent, how to interest them, how to get them involved, and how to please them. You'll notice they always come back for more. Tom Hanks ("Splash," "The 'Burbs") is a classic example. Michael Keaton ("Night Shift," "Dream Team"). And believe me Ron's (Howard) terrific, but Brian is there day to day and a lot of that relationship stuff is pure Brian Grazer."

Grazer surfs with Hanks, has late dinners with Keaton and when he made "Housesitter," "I did a lot of shopping with Steve Martin."

"He doesn't bite heads off and then spit them out like some people in this town," says Dan Aykroyd ("Spies Like Us," "My Girl"). "He believes in my stuff."

"I think what good producers do," says Grazer, "is they massage brilliance."

Immediately down the pipeline are two movies scheduled to go into production in April: "Concierge," starring Michael J. Fox, the story based on a Grazer idea directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who did the Paramount hit "The Addams Family"; and "Cop and a Half," about a boy who wants to be a cop, featuring Burt Reynolds and directed by Henry Winkler. In the next wave, likely to begin shooting in July barring an actors' strike, are "Cowboy Way," written by William Witliffe (of the acclaimed TV miniseries "Lonesome Dove") and Joe Gayton ("Shout"), based on another Grazer idea, with a top male lead whom Grazer doesn't want named yet. And "Greed"--a project updating Dickens' "Martin Chuzzlewit"--by screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel ("Night Shift," "Splash," "Parenthood," "City Slickers"), longtime associates with an office at Imagine.

Two other Imagine movies are planned for the end of the year: "Charlie Chan," being written by David Mamet, who will also direct, and "Curious George," based on the children's books. Imagine and Universal are planning a heavy merchandising campaign for "Curious George" for summer, 1993, timed to the movie's release.

"We're doing a new-wave '90s 'Chan' in attitude and design," notes Grazer, who says it will feature Asian actors. "The racist part was sort of the ' ah-so ' guy. The movie's power--its going to be a very complicated history movie that will have some of the elements of 'The Untouchables,' which Mamet wrote. It focuses on a man's genius and his ability to succeed and be a super-hero through brain and not through brawn . . . and it should (also) give you the same level of gratification as 'Lethal Weapon.' "

Also being mentioned for 1992 production are "The Bum," which would star Jodie Foster and is being written by Ron Bass ("Rain Man")--an idea that began with Grazer, was enlarged by Bass, and further refined by Foster to make the movie driven by the female lead; "The Tourist," based on a Grazer idea about a foreign tourist who gets lost going to Pasadena; "Cell Block IV," a humorous takeoff on rap music, co-produced with Sean Daniel, and "The Lobbyist" about a Washington lobbyist, Grazer's idea, whose tone, he says, will resemble "Broadcast News."

"I want to be smarter," says Grazer, "because then I'm more valuable to the movies I'm currently working on. And I can also self-generate better movies."

So besides Nobel winner Cram, Grazer recently called on Ronald Reagan; Judge Burton Roberts, chief administrative judge of the Supreme Court of Bronx County; Calif. Assembly Speaker Willie Brown; script consultant Robert McKee; a leading acting coach who didn't want his name used, and Ron Teeguarden, a New Age health advocate who specializes in Chinese herbalism.

"He seems like a nice guy," said Roberts, the judge Tom Wolfe based the character of "Bonfire of the Vanities" judge Myron Kovitsky on. "I think he wants, like fast food, to learn things fast, and that may result in superficial knowledge. (But) he's smart, he asked probing questions . "

Twenty minutes late for the meeting with Cram in which they would discuss molecules, pheromones and the dynamics of love at first sight, Grazer rushed in, ecstatic that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert had just given "two thumbs up" to "My Girl." The phone rang. "That could be Tom Cruise calling me," Grazer told Cram.

As for Cram, he hadn't seen Grazer's movies nor had he heard of their stars. "I don't know these people from Adam." But he did suggest to Grazer that "intuitive" ability "may well be your greatest strength" along with what Cram defined as "faith in yourself and your abilities"--ego.

Grazer grew up in Sherman Oaks and in Northridge, the eldest of three children of Arlene Becker Grazer and the late Thomas Grazer, a criminal lawyer. He had no family connections in Hollywood. "My best buddy, the most important person in my growing up, was my little 4-foot-10 Jewish grandmother (Grazer's father was Catholic), and she'd say, 'In order to get it, you got to do it. No one's going to get it for you, Brian.' "

At USC he won a scholarship. "I worked 40 hours a week while I was going to school so I could buy a Porsche and then I made up (to other people that) my dad did better than he really did, I'm embarrassed to say. I was a middle-class guy and I made up a history that was more than that . . . that my dad owned a law firm . . . I just made up a whole identity. I moved everything a little bit."

Grazer majored in psychology as a pre-med student but after graduation in 1974, he went to USC law school. The first summer he "happened to overhear" some law school graduates talking about "this cushy job" as a $5-an-hour clerk at Warner Bros. So he quit law school and decided to make his way in movies.

He also saw lifestyle. When a vice president was fired, Grazer asked for, and got to use, his office. "I was in close proximity to all the big shots, and they said I could sit in their offices and watch 'em talk. I sat in an office with a marlin on the wall, and pictures of this yacht with nice-looking people. I said, 'Why am I going to law school to sit behind a Naugahyde desk when these guys are (in) lavish living rooms with fish on the wall?' "

Grazer made phone calls, took meetings. "I got every person in the movie business to meet me with the exception of Robert Evans (then executive vice president at Paramount)." After eight months he was fired. "I guess they sensed I was a little dangerous.

"I tried to get a bunch of jobs, couldn't land one." Then someone gave him a "good connection" who, instead of a job, gave advice. "He said, 'Look, you got no money, you got no experience, you got to own the rights to things, be a writer. ' "

So Grazer schlepped idea after idea about town, sold two to NBC, and went to work for TV producer Edgar Scherick. He produced two NBC-TV movies in 1978 for Scherick, who remembers Grazer as "very much a young man in a hurry. He worked hard for me--and hard for himself."

Grazer got a TV producer job for $100,000 a year at Paramount. But though he says he was "selling ideas like crazy," he also managed to sell a project based on a movie that Paramount wanted to forget about "and the deal got busted in (Paramount's) business affairs. I didn't get the politics; I didn't know how to play ball."

After much pleading and rallying "powerful people on the lot" including Mark Ovitz (Michael's brother) for support, he got extended for three months, then a year. Meanwhile, he started taking a good look at movies--in Paramount's screening room, and trying his own hand at them. "I wrote up (the concept for) 'Night Shift,' I wrote up 'Splash,' I wrote up a few other movies. Paramount passed."

In the early days of Imagine, David Friendly recalls worrying about getting "The 'Burbs" off the ground. "I said, 'I'm a little discouraged,' and he got really serious and he said, 'Don't ever talk to me that way. We will never fail. Ron and I will not fail. And we won't let you fail. . . .' "

At a story meeting on "Greed," Grazer, Friendly, Ganz and Mandel are discussing the central character and what ethical lines he would cross for a $20-million inheritance:

"I like the idea that people change their goals and what they want based on an introduction to a new arena," says Grazer. "A guy that's never been in a private jet. All of a sudden I go on MCA's jet. I go, 'Wow, this is great.' Then I go on it twice and pretty soon I start to feel the only way I can travel is on a private jet."

For Grazer the movie business "is all first-person." Whether coming up with an idea or choosing to do a movie someone brings to him, his approach is, "Can I relate to it? Did it ever happen to me? Could I ever imagine it happening to me, and what would happen if it did happen to me?"

It was "Splash," based on his idea about a guy meeting the perfect woman--a mermaid--that first brought Grazer notice. Made for a mere $8.5 million, the movie grossed $62 million, and brought the screenwriters--Ganz and Mandel, Bruce Jay Friedman and Grazer--an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.

With Brian Grazer there is illusion--and reality.

"You have to be a doer personality," says Grazer on the role of producer. "You have to be the person who sees the top of the mountain and is always pushing towards it. He sees something on the side. He doesn't walk over to get it. He just keeps going. You don't get deviated on little fire trails. You don't trip on a rock. You just keep pushing up the hill. No matter how incremental."

Grazer may have the appearance of the hare as in that old Aesop fable, but beneath the skin is the temperament of the tortoise.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
63°