Brian Grazer lives for curiosity.
As co-founder of Imagine Entertainment, he has produced some of our generation’s most iconic films and television series, including A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon, Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. Over the years, his films have grossed over $13.5B at the box office and been nominated for 52 Academy Awards.
And it’s all thanks, he says, to his insatiable curiosity—a lust for learning, growing and asking questions that expand and enrich the world.
At an IVY Ideas Night in Los Angeles, Grazer revealed the roots of his curiosity, how he’s used it to create remarkable entertainment, and why curiosity is the key to entrepreneurial, artistic and personal success.
Along the way, Grazer also shared three surprising insights about curiosity—and how being curious leads to a bigger, richer, more interesting life.
Curiosity isn’t just an exercise or attitude—it’s a way of navigating the world.
For Grazer, curiosity is both an invitation into new worlds and a method to deeply understand them. Being curious allows him to connect with new people (in his “curiosity conversations” with people from all walks of life), soak up knowledge (in his endless research on people and stories), and connect dots across worlds (his basic creative strategy in every new project).
Grazer points to 8 Mile, his 2002 drama about a white rapper’s journey to launch a hip-hop career, as a product of his unique curiosity. Ten years earlier, Grazer had immersed himself in the world of hip-hop after hearing ODB on the radio and interviewing a number of influential rappers. Those conversations granted him access to the hip-hop world, allowed him to understand its significance as a massive culture, and led him to a compelling premise for a film that became a critical and financial success.
Curiosity also allows Grazer to penetrate to the heart of his movies. The interior of any great story, he says, operates on a “thematic”—a reason for being, such as love, respect or self-worth—which then becomes a story that can be communicated. Becoming intensely curious about that narrative leads to great storytelling—a principle that also applies to successful companies.
Legendary producer Brian Grazer speaks to IVY Members in LA.
For Grazer, curiosity is also a mode of education. As he reads, researches and does his homework, he lets his curiosity guide the learning process, which generates meaningful questions and allows him to “penetrate to the psyche” of his interview subjects. As a result, his curiosity has become a way of “expanding my intellect” and “emotional being” while incubating new ideas.
That approach explains Grazer’s seemingly serendipitous journey in Hollywood. The “innocent, naïve kid” who “accidented” into a career that requires a “manufacturing” of creative value—or, as he calls it, “juice”—is in fact a fertile mind that has followed its curiosity for decades.
Curiosity helps us learn and cope with failure.
Grazer is remarkably open about his failures and believes they contain immensely valuable opportunities. Here, too, curiosity is key—it’s Grazer’s curiosity about his failures that allows him to learn so much from them.
American Gangster, Grazer’s 2007 movie about notorious drug-dealer Frank Lucas, stands out among his more significant lessons. Just before shooting, the studio killed the project, opting to take an unprecedented $30M write-down and dealing his company a huge blow. Grazer allowed himself 24 hours of mourning before reframing the setback as an opportunity—or, as he puts it, a chance to “rewrite the story.” What seemed like a failure was in fact a mandate to improve the value proposition of the project, refine his pitch, and make the film an even more compelling film for the studio.
He quickly re-signed Denzel Washington to the project, convinced Russell Crowe to join the film, and attached Ridley Scott as director. Grazer attributes that shift in perspective to his insatiable curiosity—about what the project could become, about which new talent could bring it back to life, and about how the sum total of his curiosity conversations could serve the resurrection of one of his favorite stories.
The film went on to gross $267M worldwide and received two Academy Award nominations—a testament to the galvanizing effect of curiosity.
Curiosity has its limits.
While Grazer preaches the magic of curiosity, he also believes strongly in the role of “anti-curiosity”—the point at which he must stop being curious about his projects and simply begin executing on them.
That shift is a delicate one in Grazer’s work, because he thrives on diverse data and perspectives. As he develops projects, he fearlessly—curiously—invites criticism and feedback, all of which allow him to carefully consider a new venture from all angles. But once he’s arrived at a point of “informed intuition” about a project’s success, he turns that curiosity off—then becomes dogmatically obsessed with bringing it to life.
Still, Grazer wrestles with the tension between digging deeper into a project and closing himself off from new information. As an enemy of the idea of “good enough”—which, he believes, almost always means that something isn’t good enough—Grazer refuses to settle, and prides himself on cultivating the best possible version of every project. “Any time I’ve become impatient or expedient and said, ‘It’s good enough,’ it’s always been terrible.”
Once Grazer’s met his standards, however, the demands of execution have to take over from the demands of endless curiosity (a process, he says, that applies to any venture.) He views every new project as a “gaseous thing, and there’s got to be some point where you turn it into a solid, where you say, ‘I don’t want to challenge this idea anymore—I’ve done that exhaustively—now it’s time to do it. That’s anti-curiosity. When you’ve done your homework, and you just jump off the cliff.
This article was written by Gabriel Mizrahi, an IVY member based in Los Angeles. You can check out more of his work on The Huffington Post, Techonomy and Business Insider.