When it comes to exploring the topics that fuel our hopes and dreams, Brian Grazer has made an indelible impression on the big screen as well as television. He connects with audiences on both a visceral and cerebral level with engrossing projects that cover a gamut of historical, generational, and aspirational subjects.
With a body of work that includes A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Frost / Nixon, Inside Man, American Gangster, The DaVinci Code, 8 Mile, and a litany of other films that would warrant top billing for any producer’s resumé, Grazer’s film and television projects have explored the far reaches of the human experience as well as the inner workings of the psyche. Imagine Entertainment’s films and television programs have generated nearly $14B in worldwide theatrical, music, video, and merchandising grosses, garnering a total of 43 Oscar nominations along the way.
Add TV series such as 24, Empire, and Arrested Development—plus 195 Emmy nominations and a Grammy win—into the mix, and it’s abundantly clear that Grazer’s formula for success tapped into a cultural zeitgeist, hitting its stride during the 1990s and continuing today.
His latest foray into “smart” TV—which he calls the new reality TV—is all about discovery through digging into personalities, adversity, and the times they occupy. Genius is the first scripted drama series to air on National Geographic. The 2017 Season 1 debut featured Albert Einstein and was nominated for 10 Emmy awards. Season 2 featured legendary artist Pablo Picasso and garnered seven Emmy nominations.
“Mood elevation is really important to me,” said Grazer in a recent conversation with CSQ at his Beverly Hills office. “My intention is to elevate people’s moods and make them feel something they haven’t felt before.” While elevating moods may be Grazer’s forte, asking questions throughout the journey has long been his modus operandi.
Grazer’s demeanor is slightly more relaxed than his signature electric hairstyle as he dives into an explanation of one of his favorite office curios. What at first glance appears to be a backgammon set opens to reveal a striking collection of glass vials, containing a complex menu of elements used to create different perfumes. Given to him by The Emperor of Scent author Chandler Burr, the ornate display is an effective icebreaker. “Props make people more comfortable,” he says. “This is a good prop.” Another good prop and surprising talking point: Grazer’s own artwork that he paints in his studio, such as the playful abstract with pink background titled “Gogo Barbie” that decorates his office.
During a freestyle conversation that touches on his Southern California upbringing, his battle with dyslexia, the Jewish grandmother who encouraged his curiosity, and his uncanny ability to seize opportunities from the most unlikely places, Grazer weaves a lively narrative punctuated by astute observations. Although he’s been in the entertainment business since the 1970s with a career that has evolved light years since his days as a Warner Bros. law clerk, Grazer has resisted falling into the conventional traps of the studio exec.
“I don’t mind being on hold with someone’s assistant,” he offers, in a declaration of his big-picture thinking. “In tech, you make your own calls. I like making my own calls. I don’t mind talking to assistants and getting to know assistants, ’cause they’re soon gonna be bosses, right?”
The Wunderkind Years
Grazer traces the flashpoint of his fascination to seeing E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome in 1982. Though he was already working in film, his career was still in development. It was the distinct separation of his before-and-after experience related to seeing Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster fantasy, however, that crystalized for Grazer the vast potential of movies to inspire and even change how people act.
On the way to the theater, Grazer remembers everything being a blur of typical LA chaos: Parking pandemonium, jostling with the crowd, concessions free-for-all—nothing was in sync and everyone and everything seemed fueled by agitation. After the film ended, however, Grazer looked around and felt a sense of equilibrium, order, and peace. The world had transformed. People were polite to one another. Exiting traffic flowed smoothly from the theater parking lot. It was as if the film and its underlying message had unified the collective consciousness of the crowd.
“Details ignite emotion,” he says, his voice adopting the purposeful cadence of a mantra. “Scripts are a map to emotion. When it works, [you create] an emotional memory.” Which is exactly what Grazer experienced years ago in the aftermath of Spielberg’s science-fiction flick, widely acclaimed as one of the greatest movies ever made.
From that moment on, Grazer was on a mission to become a creative force working toward the positive impact that film can achieve. He had been pitching an idea for a movie about a mermaid who washes up on the shores of New York City. Similar to E.T. in that the story involves a visitor from another place who encounters a kind-hearted protagonist, Grazer nonetheless endured seven years of rejection—and insults berating the concept—before Disney picked up the project. When it was finally released in 1984, Splash, starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah, would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award when Grazer was just 33.
Beyond Happy Days
Early in his career, Grazer developed a practice—which he went out of his way to fulfill—that challenged him to meet someone new every day. Unintimidated by the prospect of starting a conversation with anyone who might directly or indirectly help him catch a break or take his game to the next level, Grazer took the practice seriously.
His bold panache resulted in face-to-face meetings with Lew Wasserman, Warren Beatty, and Ron Howard, the latter leading to a 30-plus-year partnership that is still going strong to this day. The two joke that they have one of the longest marriages in Hollywood. “I met Ron by calling out to him one day when he was walking down the hall past my office,” recalls Grazer. At that point, Howard was an established actor with two successful series, The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, under his belt. They developed a quick friendship and an appreciation of their complementary styles.
Grazer and Howard first worked together on the 1982 comedy Night Shift, for which Grazer was a producer. The movie, starring Michael Keaton and Henry Winkler, marked the beginning of Howard’s “official” transition from acting to directing. (Howard’s directorial debut was actually 1977’s Grand Theft Auto, a project that he and father Rance Howard co-wrote.)
Getting a meeting with Warren Beatty required a bit more creativity. After finessing an interview to get his Warner Bros. law clerk job (as his plan was to go to law school), Grazer found himself relegated to a windowless office, tasked with filing papers and occasionally delivering documents in his company car.
One day, there was a call to deliver some papers to Beatty, who was living at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. “I made sure I got to go on that delivery,” recalls Grazer, who turned a drop-off errand into an hour-long conversation with Beatty, who was already a huge star.
Grazer has recounted the Wasserman meeting in previous interviews, describing the manner in which the iconic Hollywood power broker gave the young law clerk a pencil and a blank pad of paper, told him to put them together, and summarily dismissed him from his office. “He was basically telling me, ‘You have no connections, you have no money, the only way you’re going to make it in this town is to create something original.’ How democratizing is that?”
From Hollywood to Why
Grazer lives in Santa Monica with his wife, Veronica. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley with a sister and brother with whom he’s still close, throwing frequent family get-togethers at the Grazer home. His father was a criminal lawyer, and his mother was a homemaker. It was a practical, no-frills lifestyle, and popular, brand-name products were verboten due to their cost. “We never had Coke, Twinkies, none of that stuff,” he says. The one family vacation he recalls was at the Town and Country Hotel in San Diego. “I remember eating a club sandwich, thinking it was the greatest thing ever.”
Barely a “C” student while growing up, Grazer was diagnosed early on with dyslexia, which he worked to overcome. As his academic struggles weighed on him, he developed a habit that would become quite strong in the ensuing years: He asked questions. Lots of them. Incessantly. Which quickly evolved into becoming the class clown and a precocious distraction.
His treasured mentor and confidante was his Grandma Sonya, a Russian Jew from New York who came to live in LA and appreciated Grazer’s highly inquisitive nature. “She was always encouraging me,” Grazer recalls. “She said, ‘You’re going to be special. You’re going all the way.’ There was no evidence in my report cards to support her belief,” he adds. “She thought my curiosity was a good thing, so I stuck with it.”
In 2009, Grazer heard Simon Sinek’s TED Talk, “Start With Why,” and it had such a profound impact on him that he befriended the author and speaker. “I thought I knew my ‘why,’” Grazer says, recalling a pivotal conversation they had. Sinek asked Grazer to recall his first most vivid experience from elementary school. Grazer’s mind immediately went to a notorious bully who had been making the rounds, beating up various classmates. Grazer felt his number was coming up soon, and the foreboding feeling gradually consumed him until the day their paths finally crossed. “One day on the playground, he grabbed me, got me in a headlock, started beating me up, and I somehow flipped it.” Proceeding to thrash the bully, Grazer suddenly enjoyed mythic, Robin Hood–esque status at the school.
Sinek awakened in Grazer an epiphany: His why—the element that drives him—is that he despises bullies. “You win as an underdog,” Sinek told him. It’s a revelation that can be traced back through much of Grazer’s work, from Splash to the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind about mathematician John Nash, who struggled for years with schizophrenia.
During the Cannes Film Festival in May, Grazer and Ron Howard announced a new phase of their partnership: Imagine Impact, a global content accelerator program that will leverage and scale Howard and Grazer’s 30 years of expertise and trial-and-error in succeeding in one of the most notoriously opaque yet most alluring industries in the world. The pilot program, Impact 1, takes place between September 10 and November 2, 2018.
Grazer says the goal of Imagine Impact is to “find and elevate fresh and original voices around the world who never would have had the opportunity to reach big audiences. If we can do that, then we are bringing valuable new stories to the world that have the potential to change and shape the way people live, think, and dream.”
Grazer continues with his “curiosity conversations,” which produced the content for his 2015 bestseller, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life. For these he references compelling personalities from all walks of life (from Michael Jackson to Andy Warhol to Jonas Salk to Margaret Thatcher to “my Uber driver in Paris”) who have had the ability to feed his curious mind. “I just had a fascinating meeting with the brilliant data scientist, Megan Risdal, who works for Kaggle, a company owned by Google. A couple weeks ago, I met Steven Kotler who is an expert on flow state, which I’m obsessed with right now.”
Of all people who have found success in Hollywood, Grazer recognizes the value of receiving a helping hand from impact players on the way up. That dynamic suited him early in his career and continues to hold water.
After all, in the creative, inquisitive world of Brian Grazer, it’s all about making a big splash.
TURNING THE ANSWER KEY
Hollywood’s most curious mind opens up about filmmaking, success, and his passions outside of work
Brian Grazer ponders much and often, and in 2015 he released his first book, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life, which became a New York Times bestseller. The book is a collection of “curiosity conversations” that led to the creation of some of his seminal works. In January 2019, Simon & Schuster will release Eye Contact: Stories on the Power of Human Connection, a follow-up of sorts that delves deeper into these topics.
In the spirit of questioning, we asked Grazer to offer his thoughts on the following queries related to work, life, and the balance between the two.
“Curiosity is a force. It’s an aggressive tool to assault, to challenge what we do every day.”
On being comfortable:
“I’m more comfortable being uncomfortable. I don’t feel like I’m growing if I’m comfortable. I don’t like relaxed situations. What’s relaxing is chaos.”
On the business of filmmaking:
“Every movie is a startup. Every television show is a startup. Every decision you make has to be excellent.”
On how he measures success:
“[By the] impact [on] the lives of the people I love, as well as audiences I’ve never met who are somehow moved, empowered, or uplifted by the stories we are able to share. When I’m able to entertain and evolve people into a better state of mind, that’s when I feel we did a good job. Ultimately, I’m in the feelings business!”
On his passions outside of work:
“I love discovering new cultures and new worlds with my family. And I’m proud of the work our family does with underserved children around the world. Veronica and I took the kids to India this past January and completed a service project with WEVillage, building a school in a rural area outside of Udaipur. We always incorporate service with children as part of our trips, including Burma, Kenya, South Africa, and most recently, Israel.”
On the greatest lesson the business has taught him:
“I learned to never do the things you don’t believe in, because when it fails, it feels terrible, and when it succeeds, it isn’t satisfying.”