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Ron Howard's savvy

Ron Howard's savvy -- What makes the director's film so charming

Inside a darkened New York City sound studio, Ron Howard is hovering over an editing console. He and his crew have been working on a barroom-brawl scene between actors Randy Quaid and Jason Alexander in The Paper, but the director can’t concentrate. The lure of the glass-enclosed office where he’s set up his PowerBook and fax machine is too great. The telephone keeps ringing.

As he runs into the office with his jeans tucked into his fur-lined waterproof boots and his red hair peeking out from under a baseball cap, Howard looks remarkably like a postcollegiate production assistant. But snatches of his phone conversations (”This Brad Pitt guy…I have a thought about casting I was thinking Douglas”) tell a different story. At 40, Howard has become a broker of considerable Hollywood power. As cofounder alongside producer Brian Grazer, he runs Imagine Entertainment, the 81 2-year-old film company whose 21 movies have generated more than $750 million in revenue. And as a director, he’s won a niche as an actor’s favorite with a knack for mainstream hits. Howard’s films-including Splash, Parenthood, and Backdraft-have grossed a total of nearly $500 million and earned him a reputation as a director whose gentle demeanor masks an impressive set of survivalist commercial instincts.

”You can be honorable and decent and at the same time not be a dope,” says Howard. ”You have to read people’s motives and understand what hidden agendas there might be.”

That kind of language seems surprising coming from a man marked in America’s collective consciousness as moppet Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show and Nice Boy Richie Cunningham on Happy Days, but it shouldn’t. Howard’s acumen serves him well from the first stages of preproduction on a film. While researching The Paper, he spent months hanging out at the New York Post and the Daily News, doggedly quizzing reporters, editors, and columnists. So it’s no fluke that his name ended up appearing in New York newspapers almost as frequently as Yankee box scores. The movie, a light comedy-drama about 24 hours in the life of a Gotham tabloid, opened March 18 to mostly favorable reviews, which capped several months of glowing press from the journalists Howard shrewdly courted at every turn; at one point, he’d handed out so many cameos that a gossip columnist griped in print that she hadn’t been invited to appear. (Guess what? Howard put her in the movie.)

His courting wins over real actors as well. ”He doesn’t have the fears and questions a lot of directors who are less secure go through,” says Michael Keaton, who starred in Howard’s Night Shift (1982) and Gung Ho (1986) before signing on as The Paper’s harried hero, a city editor juggling professional and family demands. ”He totally trusts me…. But if he disagrees with me, he won’t be budged.”

Howard’s savvy has served him in the boardroom just as well as it has on the set. ”I don’t think I’m a gifted businessman,” he says. ”But I’m solid and I understand the fundamentals, so I don’t hurt myself.”

Many in Hollywood would call that false modesty. Howard revealed sharp / bottom-line instincts two years ago when he and Grazer overrode the protests of some Imagine stockholders to secure themselves a more lucrative professional opportunity. The two men met in 1981, when Grazer brought Howard the idea for Night Shift. They founded Imagine in 1985 and took it public in 1986. But in the spring of 1992, after months of attempted renegotiation, Grazer and Howard announced they would leave the publicly owned Imagine for a joint venture at Universal, which had distributed almost all of Imagine’s movies.

At issue was money: Although Howard’s directing fee was reportedly close to $5 million, and Grazer’s producing fee was around $2.2 million for Universal films and $1.25 million for films made outside Universal, these fees were reinvested in Imagine. (Each man netted a reported $1.3 million per year and a percent of Imagine’s revenues for running the company.) Grazer and Howard decided they were worth more, and offered to take Imagine private at $9 a share.

Stockholders, who felt they’d invested as much in the filmmakers’ names as in the company itself, were outraged. One shareholder, Robert Hoffberg, filed a still-pending class-action lawsuit against Grazer and Howard, charging that the two were trying to buy the company on the cheap.

”The whole thing became pretty awkward,” admits Howard. ”We were only getting 25 percent of our street value….It became apparent that if we took that much (more) cash out of the company, we risked putting a cap on (Imagine’s) earnings.” Eventually, Howard and Grazer worked out a very sweet deal with the studio, which reportedly lent them about $24 million to buy up the outstanding shares. Most stockholders ended up with little profit, since the price of the stock-which at one point was as high as $19.25 a share- had fallen to its original $8 price. Grazer and Howard, on the other hand, found themselves running a privately owned company with much more creative and financial control.

One key to Imagine’s success is the contrast between its partners’ talents and personal styles. A divorced father of two, Grazer, 42, lives the role of the Player, a hard-hitting dealmaker whose cellular phone seems surgically attached to his ear. Howard relishes his image as the duo’s soft-selling, more creative half; he lives quietly in Connecticut with Cheryl, his wife of 18 years, and their kids, Bryce, 13, twins Jocelyn and Paige, 9, and Reed, 6. ”Ron has chosen not to spend his time lunching at the Grill and having dinner at Morton’s. And he’s chosen to have a partner who does that and does it very well,” offers Universal chief Tom Pollock. ”Could he do it? Yeah. But that would necessitate a different lifestyle.”

”I’m definitely the bad cop,” says Grazer. ”I call the agents, the lawyers, the business managers. So people get pissed off at me and they don’t get pissed off at him, even if we have the same point of view. I’ve sort of accepted that as my role in the relationship. That’s the way it works, so why fight it?”

While The Paper may seem exactly the kind of lighthearted, commercial film that has become Howard’s stock in trade, the movie’s underlying subject-one man’s midlife pull between career and family-is an unusually personal one for the director. ”My career is at a level where if I allowed it, the demands would never end,” Howard says, looking tired, the crow’s feet crinkling around his light-blue eyes. ”I love the business. I love my family….There are periods when I’m not seeing them much and it gets a little uncomfortable. My wife says I’m doing a better job in the last couple of years.”

Howard’s family provided welcome refuge in 1992, when he took an extended vacation and licked his wounds after the first major failure of his directorial career, Far and Away. A $60 million epic romance that improbably cast Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as turn-of-the-century Irish immigrants, the film was slammed by critics as a self-conscious, over-the-top period piece. Audiences seemed to agree; the film grossed a disappointing $59 million. Howard, who admits he was ”blindsided” by the experience, spent the summer reading, watching movies, and poring over the journals he has been keeping since directing his first film, 1978’s Grand Theft Auto.

”We believed we had a $100 million movie,” he recalls. ”We always scored high at test screenings…. Then we got some bad reviews I wasn’t braced for. But I intended it to be almost fairy-tale-ish, a family fable…. I think some critics (thought), ‘Oh, this is Ron Howard thinking he’s David Lean.’… Far and Away, because I’d wanted to make it for so long, felt like a conclusion to the first phase of my career.”

In fact, Imagine’s upcoming output looks awfully familiar-the company’s comedy-heavy slate includes the Woody Harrelson-Kiefer Sutherland teamup Cowboy Way, Sgt. Bilko with Steve Martin, and a planned remake of The Nutty Professor starring Eddie Murphy. But Howard himself, who directs one Imagine film a year, seems ready for more serious fare. An adaptation of John Grisham’s still-unpublished courtroom thriller, The Chamber, awaits him, but before that he’ll take on Lost Moon, based on a book cowritten by astronaut James Lovell Jr. about the 1970 Apollo space mission, which nearly ended in disaster.

Though simulating weightlessness could prove challenging, Howard has more soulful ambitions in mind. While his movies are almost always entertaining and accomplished, they rarely make complex emotional statements. At a time when Steven Spielberg, one of Howard’s favorite directors, has triumphed with Schindler’s List, Howard has grown reflective about his own potential.

”I don’t think I’ve pushed any boundaries yet as a director. I may be a little braver in the future,” Howard says. ”I’ve always believed that I’d do my best work from age 50 to 65. I told that to my brother Clint about 20 years ago,” he says with a self-conscious laugh. ”He looked at me and said, ‘That means you’re in store for a lot of sh–y movies.’”