BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — “So this is a blow gun,” Brian Grazer said during an interview in his office. “It shoots a very sharp dart.”
Mr. Grazer, the madcap producer behind some of the biggest TV and movie hits of the last 40 years, held the slim weapon to his pursed lips. He pointed it at a target-practice poster about 10 feet away and blew forcefully — thwack.
“Crazy, right?” he said. “Don’t worry. You’re a thousand percent safe.”
The first dart had gone slightly off course. But the second was affixed to the tip of the nose of the bad guy on the target. Mr. Grazer giggled with delight.
Without knowing it — or perhaps knowing exactly — Mr. Grazer had supplied a suitable opening scene for an article about his effort to remain relevant in Hollywood. Only the real-life target is a moving one.
Mr. Grazer founded Imagine Entertainment in 1986 with Ron Howard, the Oscar-winning director. Over the decades, they have steered Imagine to the center of one show business trend after another. In the early 1990s, when studios were paying vast sums to lock up producers as suppliers, Imagine’s deal with Universal was one of the richest. On certain hits, Mr. Grazer received up to 25 percent of the revenue.
Mr. Howard is working on the film adaptation of “Hillbilly Elegy,” which Imagine sold to Netflix for $45 million.CreditPeyton Fulford for The New York Times
When the TV industry tilted toward a renaissance in the late 1990s, Imagine was among the first movie companies to seize the moment, resulting in shows like “Felicity,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Arrested Development” and “24.”
Now Mr. Howard and Mr. Grazer have recalibrated yet again. Imagine has quietly placed itself at the center of the streaming revolution by splitting with Universal, raising its own funding and aggressively building new content assembly lines: documentaries, preschool television shows, multicultural low-budget films, podcasts, branded entertainment, animation.
“Instead of narrowing our focus to service a particular need of a particular company, which felt creatively limiting, we took a risk and moved toward vastly more independence,” Mr. Howard said by telephone from a set in Atlanta. “It’s us recognizing that this particular era in media represents an incredible opportunity.”
Netflix will spend about $8 billion on original programming next year, according to BTIG Research. (Mr. Howard was in Georgia to shoot the film “Hillbilly Elegy,” which Imagine sold to Netflix for an eye-popping $45 million.) Amazon will spend an estimated $3 billion. Disney Plus, which will go live in November; the coming Apple Plus; and Hulu will each spend between $1 billion and $2 billion. Major streaming services from WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal are in the works. Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat are also buying original shows.
“Three new Netflixes needing content — quality content — probably popped up while we’ve been talking,” Mr. Grazer said.
Imagine investors now include Raine, a media-focused merchant bank that has put in at least $125 million. Mr. Grazer and Mr. Howard have a first-look deal with the CBS Corporation to produce shows. To expand its overseas TV operation, Imagine struck a $100 million co-financing deal with a Hong Kong media company.
To a degree, Mr. Grazer, 68, and Mr. Howard, 65, seem to have legacy on their minds. They want Imagine to live beyond them, and growth is the only way to make that happen. Down the road, Mr. Grazer and Mr. Howard envision selling Imagine as a fully formed content engine, sort of the way Jeffrey Katzenberg built DreamWorks Animation and sold it to Comcast in 2016 for $3.8 billion.
Apple briefly looked at Imagine as an acquisition target in the months after the DreamWorks sale, but both sides decided the timing wasn’t right. Imagine is now making shows and films for Apple Plus, including an episodic basketball drama called “Swagger.”
Since then, Imagine has gone on a hiring blitz, more than doubling its staff to 65 people. Executives have joined Imagine from HBO, ABC, Netflix and NBCUniversal. “I wanted to find young, smart people to carry our story forward,” Mr. Grazer said.
Now comes the hard part: making all of the new divisions run efficiently and maximizing their potential.
“I think we’re in the middle of our plan,” said Michael Rosenberg, Imagine’s co-chairman, who runs the company on a day-to-day basis. Imagine is looking for a chief executive; the job has been vacant since Charlie Corwin stepped down last year. “The challenge has been finding the right people — who fits our culture?” said Mr. Rosenberg, who joined Imagine in 1988.
Stephanie Sperber, formerly a senior executive at Universal Pictures, seems to be one of those people. She joined Imagine in January as president of its new Kids & Family division and already has 25 projects in development. In the last few weeks, Ms. Sperber sold a scripted space show to Nickelodeon; announced a deal for a live-action horse-themed series; and bought rights to Tiny Chef, a character with a large YouTube following who has been described as “Julia Child meets Mister Rogers.”
“The I.P. is so brand new that we can work with the creators to build it out — digital, music, live events, games, consumer products,” Ms. Sperber said of Tiny Chef.
Other new divisions include Imagine Documentaries, which has 13 films and docu-series in various stages of production, and Imagine Branded Entertainment, focused on making content that doubles as advertising. One client is Unilever, which hired Imagine to make a documentary that will subtly promote Dove products for men. Imagine is also developing Broadway shows, including an adaptation of “A Beautiful Mind,” which won Oscars for Mr. Howard and Mr. Grazer in 2002.
Over the past year, Imagine has bought controlling stakes in smaller companies like Jax Media, which produces the Netflix comedy “Russian Doll,” and Marginal Mediaworks, which focuses on low-budget content from minority creators.
And Imagine continues to work on movies and TV shows for traditional distributors. Those projects include a new big-screen adaptation of “Friday Night Lights,” according to Mr. Grazer, and “The Shrinking of Treehorn,” an animated film that Mr. Howard plans to direct. Imagine has a deal with the Australian studio Animal Logic (“The Lego Movie”) to co-finance six animated films.
Imagine has an enviable track record in Hollywood, even more so because it has mostly avoided fantasies that depend on extravagant computer-generated effects — in other words, almost everything that studios churn out. But Imagine has also had its share of blunders.
Mr. Grazer and Mr. Howard, for instance, made the disastrous decision to take Imagine public in 1986. The market crashed in 1987. Imagine subsequently struggled with rising costs. Mr. Howard and Mr. Grazer took Imagine private in 1993, prompting a few irate shareholders to file lawsuits.
More recently, the two men went through a cinematic dry spell, delivering box office clunkers like “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) and “In the Heart of the Sea” (2015). Universal, which had already cut back its deal with Imagine, grew increasingly impatient. At the same time, Imagine felt stifled at Universal, where executives — following ticket-buying trends — were emphasizing horror films and tentpoles. That meant fewer slots for the kind of sophisticated dramas in which Mr. Grazer and Mr. Howard specialize.
Imagine’s first-look deal at Universal ended in 2016. The companies are still working together on some long-gestating projects.
Whether Imagine will be successful in its latest incarnation remains to be seen. But one thing becomes clear when you speak to Mr. Grazer: His desire to win — to remain Hollywood royalty — is undiminished. Despite his success, he wears a certain insecurity on his sleeve.
He talked, for instance, about the four decades of culture-defining hits that he and Mr. Howard have delivered — “Splash” (1984), “Apollo 13” (1995), “24” (2001-2010), the hip-hop drama “Empire” (entering its sixth season). Mr. Grazer added “Kindergarten Cop” (1990) to the list.
But that memory seemed to activate a wound involving “Housesitter,” a 1992 comedy. It was based on one of Mr. Grazer’s ideas.
“I read a review that said, ‘This is a dumb idea. It must have been the idea of the producer,’” he said glumly. “I literally that second got a cold sore on my lip.”
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