Hollywood Producer of Varied Interests, Many Hits, but Little Fame
LOS ANGELES — Brian Grazer, one of the most successful producers in Hollywood, would seem to be a memorable guest, with his energetic manner and elaborately spiked hair. But to make sure he is not forgotten, he will often leave behind a small photo of himself in an inexpensive heart-shaped frame after attending a dinner or party, hiding it among his host’s family photographs.
Over the years, he has left these photos at the homes of movie executives, socialites and even one in Fidel Castro’s military compound. “When I first started doing it, some people got really angry,” Mr. Grazer recalled. “That made me continue doing it. I get to see how long it takes for them to find it and whether they think it’s funny. It’s interesting to see what they’ll do with it.”
There is another level to the joke: despite Mr. Grazer’s enormous success in the movie business, his public profile remains relatively slight when compared with his Hollywood peers. Imagine Entertainment, founded 20 years ago by Mr. Grazer and the director Ron Howard, has produced a strong slate of films, including “Liar Liar,” “Eight Mile,” “Inside Man,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “The Da Vinci Code.” His latest, “American Gangster,” opened two weeks ago as the top film in the country, taking in more than $43 million at the box office its first weekend.
The diversity of his films makes Mr. Grazer an anomaly in Hollywood, where careers are typically built on well-defined brands. Everyone knows what a Steven Spielberg movie is, or a Jerry Bruckheimer film. But few people could describe a Brian Grazer project, except to say that it will probably make a lot of money.
Even for the most discerning moviegoer, there is no obvious common theme among his movies. Instead, he operates under the assumption that his own interests reflect those of the public. More often than not, he is right.
“He’s curious, smart and has a sixth sense in many ways for what the public wants and for what will appeal to talent,” said Ron Meyer, the president of Universal Studios, which finances Imagine’s films. He added, “If they end up being Oscar-contending films, that’s a wonderful bonus.”
In part, this eclecticism is a product of how Mr. Grazer works, turning his own passions into fodder for a film or a television show. For the last 20 years, Mr. Grazer has met each week with a person who is an expert in science, medicine, politics, fashion, religion — anything other than entertainment. He is so serious about the meetings that he has a staff member whose job it is to find interesting people.
The weekly get-togethers have led to some of Mr. Grazer’s most successful ideas. After meeting with five of the top trial lawyers in the country, Mr. Grazer came up with the idea for “Liar Liar.” “Eight Mile” came about because he had met Chuck D, the lead singer for Public Enemy, and Slick Rick, a rapper from the 1980s. A meeting with a former F.B.I. agent, Christopher Whitcomb, led to “The F.B.I.,” a new show for Fox.
“I like learning stuff. The more information you can get about a person or a subject, the more you can pour into a potential project,” Mr. Grazer said. “I made a decision to do different things. I want to do things that have a better chance of being thought of as original. I do everything I can to disrupt my comfort zone.”
Despite having won Oscars as well as most other film and television awards, Mr. Grazer remains largely unknown outside Hollywood. And while he acknowledges the success of his work, he still craves public recognition.
Mr. Grazer’s tendency to base shows on his own curiosities may hurt him in television, where brand names with identifiable styles like Mr. Bruckheimer or Dick Wolf tend to flourish. Imagine Entertainment has produced a wide variety of acclaimed series, including “Felicity,” “Sports Night,” “Arrested Development,” “Friday Night Lights” and “24,” but only the Fox drama “24” has achieved mainstream commercial success.
“I feel like our television company is most like our feature company. For better or for worse, I don’t think we have an easily defined brand,” said David Nevins, president of Imagine Television. “We try to avoid formula television. Although ‘24’ is a hit, we’ve not spent a lot of time trying to copy what makes ‘24’ a hit. We’re not going to do ‘24 Miami.’”
Mr. Grazer’s public profile has risen substantially over the last year — although not always for the reasons he wished. He weathered a public split from his wife of almost 10 years, the novelist Gigi Levangie Grazer, and was also caught up in an internal fight at The Los Angeles Times, which had asked him to edit a special section as a guest.
Days before the section was supposed to run, reports surfaced about a romantic relationship between a representative for Imagine and a Times editor. Eventually, The Times chose not to publish the section. Mr. Grazer was deeply upset by the episode and remains disappointed in the paper’s decision.
Despite his success and his status as a seasoned Hollywood player — he counts Sumner M. Redstone and other moguls among his closest friends — Mr. Grazer remains oddly insecure. He resists confrontation, often preferring to have other people in his company deliver bad news. He wears a conservative uniform to work each day — black pants, a white shirt and skinny black tie — because he fears looking like the typical Hollywood producer struggling to appear young.
Before he makes most decisions, he engages in an informal survey to garner the opinions of his friends. “I try things on people to test them out,” Mr. Grazer said. “Before I made ‘Eight Mile,’ I was nervous that I might be empowering someone who was not only misogynistic, but homophobic. So when I had dinner with Tom Hanks, I asked him if I was empowering the wrong person. He said no; the guy isn’t taken seriously. He talks through a character.”
The one area in which Mr. Grazer is secure is in his ability to spot talent. His first film, “Night Shift,” starred Michael Keaton — then unknown — and his second, “Splash,” made a movie star of Mr. Hanks. Both were directed by Mr. Howard, then still better known as Richie Cunningham from “Happy Days.”
Mr. Grazer almost passed up a partnership with Mr. Howard because he feared the director’s celebrity would overshadow his own role in the company. “He was just too famous for me,” Mr. Grazer said. “I felt that no matter how hard I could work, it would always be gigantically eclipsed by him.”
Mr. Howard said, “We’ve always been aware of the disadvantage of being a company that in fact wasn’t entirely driven by the identities of Brian and me. But to a degree, that’s kind of unavoidable. I never wanted a great director, young or old, to feel like I was going to sit as a principal in the company and sit there over their shoulder and try to co-direct the movie. Brian feels that to a degree as a producer as well.”
Mr. Grazer’s next projects seem conventional by comparison to his other works. “The F.B.I.,” which is scheduled for broadcast next year, will compete on networks already heavy with police procedurals. But Mr. Grazer insisted that his show won’t play it safe.
“I want to do the opposite of corny with the ‘F.B.I.’ series — something really edgy. When I was making ‘Eight Mile,’ I was desperate to avoid being corny. I’d been talking to Dr. Dre for a year to try and get as much guidance as possible. And one day he finally just said, ‘Hey, don’t clown out our world,’” Mr. Grazer said. “So, now, I try to apply that axiom. I don’t want to clown out the F.B.I. world.”
Another coming project, “Angels and Demons,” a follow-up to “The Da Vinci Code,” represents something new for Mr. Grazer — a sequel, the first his company has produced. Sequels are, of course, the ultimate safe bet in Hollywood, but he wants the approach this time to be less reverential than in “The Da Vinci Code.”
“I probably should have a brand,” Mr. Grazer said, “but I think you can’t get the best artists to work for you if you’re branded. I get the trade-off, and I really would like to be more famous for my work, get more credit for my achievements. We all want more of that. But on the other hand, if you get too big — like it says in ‘American Gangster’ — success is your enemy.”