Atlantic Council Global Citizen Awards 2019

Monday, September 23, 2019

New York, New York


Brian Grazer, storyteller, movie and television producer, founder, and philanthropist

Introductory speaker:

Ron Howard, Academy Award-winning director


ANNOUNCER:  Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard.  (Applause.)

(Music plays.)

RON HOWARD:  Thank you. Thank you very much.  Well, it is truly a pleasure to be here on behalf of Brian Grazer and – and I hope to give you all just a little idea of what makes this buddy of mine tick, so here’s a quick story.

Very early in our careers, even before we founded Imagine Entertainment, Brian wanted to produce a project that he really loved called “Splash.” “Splash” was a comedy fantasy about a mermaid and a young New York guy.  And he had struggled for years to get this movie off the ground, and finally, after the success of our first movie, it – we had a strong new script and I had agreed to direct the movie and we were now taking this project to the market to get it made and we were optimistic. 

The trouble was there was a competing mermaid project, and this one was set to star the red-hot Warren Beatty, the young Jessica Lange; it had an elite A-list director and producer attached.  And compared to us, you know, who were then a couple of 20-somethings with this newcomer in the lead named Tom Hanks, you know, who had never starred in anything other than a mediocre sitcom before, you know, we looked like a lousy bet.  All the major studios turned us down.  All except one company.  That company was on the lowest rung of the studio ladder.  Disney.  (Laughter.)

Really.  I know, but – it’s strange, but at that time their movie business consisted literally of, you know, “Pinocchio” and “Snow White” reissues, you know, “Herbie the Love Bug” sequels, and some exciting new flicks like “Gus the Field Goal-Kicking Mule.” (Laughter.)

And I, as a young, you know, up-and-coming director, I was terrified that Disney would never let us make a – a funny, modern, even somewhat sexy movie.  And then, even though I promised that I could keep the movie PG with no actual nudity, they wanted to make sure of that by having me put this Doris Day-kind of bathing suit top on the mermaid.  So that was it.  I was – I was out.  

Well, Brian, as the great young producer that he proved to be, he actually convened a meeting of the Board of Directors of Disney and he was able to convince them of the value of the movie and the contemporary good taste that he promised we would exercise.  He flipped the board.  He got the green light.  But suddenly he had another problem.  Me!

Yeah, I as the director suddenly had cold feet.  I really, really struggled with the decision to commit to this movie.  I – I – I even got sick.  I mean, to this day, Brian thinks that I was faking to just duck him, but I was – I was sick as a dog over this thing.  And finally Brian got me on the phone and I said something like, you know, it’s a fun script and the mermaid will be fresh.  And – but what makes it – what makes it memorable, well, Brian answered entirely from his soul.  “It’s going to mean something because it’s about love, Ron.  It’s a comedy fable and it reminds the audience of the healing, empowering value of love.  And everybody needs and wants to reconnect with that.”  Well, I committed to his movie that day, thank God.  

Brian is always looking for those most elemental, most human qualities that a movie or a TV show can build upon and celebrate, and he often refers to it as the heartbeat of a story or a character.  His search for that has fueled his – his famous curiosity.  Now, we’re all curious people, sure, but Brian has nurtured his in a unique and very powerful way.  The desire to understand other people, other cultures, other worlds, has helped Brian grow as a person and has helped Imagine Entertainment, our company, thrive in a changing industry.  

You see, when our company was established and we began to flourish, the most important audiences shifted from being primarily North American to global.  Well, that hasn’t been a challenge for Brian.  Instead, it’s simply been an invitation to draw upon what he has already learned through his travels around the world and all those conversations where Brian seeks to connect with people from every walk of life.  And, you know, though he’s eager to understand and appreciate all of our interesting differences, what he most concerns himself with is – are the ways in which we’re all the same.  Our common desires and challenges and worries and ambitions.

And along the way Brian has supported great causes and programs at home and around the world, including World of Children, WE Day, and the Child Mind Institute, and often these experiences that he has inspire new stories or enrich the projects that we already have underway at Imagine.  And now Brian is leading us in a revolutionary content acceleration program through Imagine called Impact.  And its primary mission is to offer opportunities to writers and creators from all over the world to shape their talent and ideas into viable projects and to help them enhance their leverage in the global media market, as storytellers.  It’s exciting.  It’s great for our industry.  And it’s going to achieve a lot of bridge building as these writers discover the heartbeat of the stories that they want to tell.  Through all of this, Brian has evolved as a true global citizen.  

And so it is my great honor tonight to introduce my partner and my friend, ladies and gentlemen, Brian Grazer.  (Cheers, applause.)

BRIAN GRAZER:  Well, thank you very much, Ron.  I so appreciate getting to know you this evening.  (Laughter.)  No, thank you, Ron.  I really appreciate it.  And I want to thank Dina Powell and David McCormick for nominating me so that I can be part of the other honorees this evening.  I’m deeply grateful to be here.  

Twenty-five years ago today Ron and I embarked upon making a movie called “Apollo 13,” a movie about three astronauts that were designed to go into outer space to get to the moon.  It’s failed mission, and they – it could have been a tragedy, they came back safely.  And the world knew they came back safely.  Well, I chose to make that as a movie knowing that the world knew that they were coming back safely.  Ron chose to direct it.

So the movie exceeded all expectations and did remarkably well financially.  It was a huge blockbuster.  And then all of a sudden it gets nominated to be – for nine Oscar nominations.  And we thought that journey was over when we succeeded at the film, now we’re faced with the Oscars, which was good news.  We had nine Oscar nominations.  

Now, every oddsmaker said:  “Apollo 13” is going to win.  I even had financial geniuses unsolicited call me and say, Brian, I need to get you on the phone.  And I’d talk to somebody.  One was Mike Milken, who I like a lot.  He said: When you win, say these eight words. I said, I can’t even talk like this. I mean, I don’t know if I’m going to win.  He said: Every odds says you’re going to win. Los Vegas says you’re going to win. Every single situation says you’re going to win.

OK, now here we are.  It’s the day—the night of the Oscars.  It’s the Kodak Theater.  All of my peers are there, and more.  Forty million people are watching the Oscars.  So I’m convinced I’m going to win an Oscar.  I mean, I – everyone’s told me I’m going to win an Oscar.  And so I’ve written a speech.  I have it all ready.  I’ve written it by hand, typed it up, it’s in my pocket.  I know exactly where it is my pocket.  I’m ready to pull it out.  

And so now it’s the final award of the evening, which is for best picture.  And Sidney Poitier, the esteemed Oscar-winning actor, is the one that’s opening that envelope. He’s a brilliant actor.  He’s a very deliberate speaker.  He speaks very slowly.  He handles the envelope very slowly.  I am in the fifth row.  I have Ron Howard next to me.  On the other side is Tom Hanks.  And the actual astronaut, Jim Lovell, is on – is the fourth in.

The camera is on me, as it is on the other five potential winners. Again, I’m certain.  I’m staring.  I’m hypnotized by Sidney Poitier – (laughs) – as he’s opening the envelope, and I’m staring at him and I’m looking at his mouth.  And I see what looks like an imperceptible B, for Brian, rolling off his lip.  So I get out of my chair in front of 40 million people – (laughter) – to accept that Oscar. As I’m walking to the podium – and the winner is Braveheart.  (Laughter.) It couldn’t have been worse.  It was the most embarrassing thing that I could have ever experienced.

Now – (applause) – (laughs) – thank you.  It gets worse.  (Laughter.)  So now, as I’m walking back backwards, because I’m – I just can’t – I’m in a state of shock – walking back backwards, I pivot to sit down, and the first face I see is the chairman of a competitive studio saying loser to me.  (Laughter.)

I sit in my seat with the loser sign embedded, emblazoned upon my forehead.  I sit in my seat, and Jim Lovell reaches over Tom Hanks and over Ron Howard and grabs my wrist and he says – looking me right in the eyes – I never made it to the moon either.  (Laughter, applause.)

So – so what I’m – (laughs) – where I’m leading with this is I’m really thankful to the Atlantic Council for letting me know before the event – (laughter) – that I was actually going to be up here with this award. (Laughter, applause.)

And I’m really, again, super-grateful, again, to know in advance.  And I am here.  There’s living proof of it.  But the message that I would like to say – and there’s some messages that live within that paradigm – but the message that I’d like to say is – that would address this group is that face-to-face communication is the most important thing we could do – (applause) – because when you actually look at somebody, as opposed to your phone, or when you travel to another country or to a restaurant locally and you actually put your phone away and look at the people around you in present time, that is what reality is.

And when you look at people, you’re immediately – you’re immediately validating them as a human being.  And therefore, you can relate to each other.  And I have learned, in another universe, an alternative – another universe, which is making movies, that when you can relate to your protagonist, they can move you.  You can move people by reaching their heart, not their mind.

So instead of looking at your phone or – and, look, I have to work on this all the time – whatever it is, but wherever you’re going, try to be – I think it’s important to try to be present.  I think by looking at people and communicating and reaching their heart, something special always happens.  There’s so many things that you gain from it.

I went on this journey just after college, so about 40 years ago, to – I started making movies very early.  And then I went on this journey where I decided I would disrupt my comfort zone every two weeks for sure with the discipline of meeting somebody that’s expert or renowned in anything other than what I do for a living. 

So it could be science, medicine, politics, religion, all art form, spies, dignitaries, hundreds of Nobel Laureates.  I did this, and everything – and there was often a lot of groveling and begging because it’s just points of intersection.  But I did this so that I could get to know not just the subject and process of somebody’s accomplishment or their expertise or commitment to a subject, but I did it so I would have to do research and challenge myself in disrupting my comfort zone to learn the language, decode some aspect of it, whether it’s chemistry or physics or whatever that would be, to communicate with someone.  So it’s a win-win situation on a one-on-one relationship.

And it occurred to me in retrospect that nobody, from Jonas Salk, who was one of the first person(s) that validated my curiosity conversations – oh, you’re never supposed to do this but I’m going to digress.  But I was – I was doing these curiosity conversations for about three years.  Jonas Salk finally agreed to meet with me.  As I – I had so much pre-anticipatory anxiety to meet Dr. Jonas Salk, my childhood hero, as I approached him, I barfed.  I mean, and I know that’s so crazy and I shouldn’t have stopped the story, but I barfed.  But thank God he’s an actual doctor because he actually resuscitated me.  But let me go back to the original narrative. (Laughter, applause.)

MR. HOWARD:  And you made friends with Salk.  You made – 

MR. GRAZER:  Oh. Ron pointed out I did – from that moment, I got – I made friends with Dr. Jonas Salk and we became friends until the – really, until the day he died, for that matter.  But what I learned by interrupting my comfort zone, meeting leaders, getting to the Kremlin, meeting, you know, unnamed people that I – what I got to do was realize that we’re not – we’re all the – we access on similar things but we learn other people’s perspectives, and when you learn other people’s perspectives you tend to like them as opposed to not like them.  You tend to understand them instead of wanting to fight them.  It’s a positive event.  

So I am in favor of that.  I am in favor of looking at people, going out of your way to be present with them – the barista, your Uber driver, whatever that is.  When you travel, really be in that moment and be generous in that moment and validate people for being people.  

So the only thing I would leave you with and, again, of course, you see I’m not reading this.  I should be. But it occurred to me, and I told Ron only this evening, there was only one common thread that these thousand people, from Princess Di to Queen Elizabeth – I could go on – and I just wrote a book called “Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection.”

But what I – the one thing that was in common, I would research every person.  I would think about what that would be, and the one thing that was common I was wrong every single time.  Every single time I thought somebody would be fun, they weren’t, or they’d be different. In other words, you can’t prognosticate or forecast what some other human being is going to be.  

So my feeling is that that is something that I feel like this organization intersects with because it’s about understanding and creating peace.  And so thank you very much for having me this evening.  (Applause.)

ANNOUNCER:  Ladies and gentlemen, please enjoy your dinner.  Our program will resume shortly.