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Imagine, Fifth Season Team On Feature Docu Slate; Ron Howard Helms Pic On Photog Richard Avedon, Lawrence Kasdan Directs One On Martin Short

EXCLUSIVE: Imagine Entertainment co-chairmen Brian Grazer and Ron Howard have entered into a multi-year co-financing and production partnership with Fifth Season and their co-CEOs Graham Taylor and Chris Rice.

Both companies have been busy in the docu space, and the move will give more autonomy. Imagine Documentaries president Sara Bernstein runs the division, and Justin Wilkes, who is Imagine president. Imagine will handle creative and production, while Fifth Season will handle sales and distribution. Fifth Season’s Non-Scripted division is run by EVP Mary Lisio.

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The arrangement will start with feature docus on two iconic figures: Howard will direct a docu on the life of celebrated photographer Richard Avedon, and Big Chill helmer will make a docu on the life and comedy of Only Murders in the Building star Martin Short. Imagine and Fifth Season will co-finance the projects together, and they have put together a slate to follow these films.

“This is an excellent opportunity to bring together two companies with a shared humanity and commitment to gripping, thought-provoking nonfiction content,” said Fifth Season’s Lisio. “We look forward to collaborating on these Avedon and Short projects, each anchored by fantastic subjects and creators alike, and on similarly exciting works down the road.” Fifth Season’s docu output includes Being Mary Tyler Moore and McCartney 3,2,1.

Imagine’s Wilkes said the team-up with Fifth Season is based on marketplace shifts that led to the desire to not just make docus piecemeal. Like Frida, the company’s latest feature docu on the life of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, which just premiered at Sundance in the US Documentary Competition category.

“We saw these shifts which really led us across the whole company, and not just the nonfiction side, to double down on being much more in control of our own destiny and really being able to invest in our content and in our IP and have more control over when to take it to market, where to take it to market, and then ultimately in the best case scenario, participate in the upside of that,” Imagine’s Wilkes told Deadline. “We’ve been financing or co-financing a lot of our bigger titles including the Frida doc, which we did with Time Studios. We were already doing it on an a la carte basis, but we started to think, is there a way to do this with a bit more heft and a way to do it where we can make a much bigger splash in the marketplace just in terms of building a pipeline as opposed to looking at an a la carte basis?

“Graham, Chris, Mary over there, they’re class acts,” Wilkes said. “They’ve got exceptional taste and their brand ladders up very nicely to the Imagine brand. We have a shared sensibility and I think how we see the landscape right now. They were the only company we called, and they right away said, yes, let’s figure this out and what this partnership does, and we can talk about the first two films we’re going to put through it. This is multi-year, and we see a whole slate of projects going through this, which I think is going to be beneficial to us. Looking at the landscape right now, things are slow. People are not buying as much and as big, and this is across the whole board. Yet we believe that there’s still a huge audience that appreciates premium, well-told stories and big IP. If we’re able to put these projects into production, we’re able to control the process from start to finish and then take it to market. We just feel like we’re going to be in a much better position strategically.”

Howard, the Oscar-winning director who alternatives between narrative and docu features, will make Avedon the next docu he directs after completing Jim Henson: Idea Man for Disney Original. His recent docu films include We Feed People, Rebuilding Paradise, Pavarotti and The Beatles: Eight Days A Week.

Howard will make the definitive portrait on Avedon’s life, produced with support from Richard Avedon’s estate, featuring his archives, and interviews with many of the photographer’s renowned subjects.

“Avedon very quickly in his career became the definitive portrait photographer of the 20th century,” Wilkes told Deadline. “He really informed what we as a society and a culture looked at as celebrity and fashion. He shot pretty much every Vogue cover and Harper’s Bazaar cover, while shooting editorial portraiture for the New Yorker. He had a greater impact on culture in the 20th century than I’d say most people and maybe frankly anybody else. And when we look today as a society that’s so hung up on photography through social media and fame and celebrity, and what does it mean? He really in a way invented that. And on a personal basis, his whole life was sort of a quest for identity. He was always somebody that felt just slightly outside of any situation that he was in, which may have also been the reason why it made him such an interesting photographer of what he was able to get out of his subjects.”

Along with every contact sheet from every photo session, he taped get-to-know-you pre-interviews of his famous subjects, and all of this Howard will use this treasure trove of unseen stuff to paint a moving portrait of a photographer and a fashion era.

That includes one of the last picture sessions taken with Marilyn Monroe.

“In that famous shot, she looks like she’s just sort of slumped in a chair, kind of sad and a little dejected,” Wilkes said. “She had just come off the set of Some Like It Hot, and publicity wanted a photo of her and they commissioned Avedon. He asks her, what do you like to do more than anything? She says, I love to dance. I never get to dance anymore. All my movie roles, I’m either playing and ingenue or ditzy blonde, but I never get to dance. Richard says, you should dance. So he puts on some music, which he was famous for. A lot of his fashion photography always had movement in it. He wasn’t a choreographer, but he would get up there with the subjects and he would move. And as she was dancing, he was photographing it. So if you look at the contact sheets, which I did from that sequence, for about an hour and a half, he has her on her feet dancing all over the room. You see this through all the photos, and at the very end, she’s exhausted. She slumps down in that chair and he takes that one photo of her just looking a little tired, and then people superimposed the sadness part. He had her dancing for two hours. She was exhausted but exhilarated.”

Wilkes said that it was the Oscar-nominated Kasdan who approached Imagine with the idea to do the film on Short. While the comic actor has been circumspect about his personal life and the creation of his madcap characters that appeared with regularity during his stint as a regular on SCTV and Saturday Night Live and Primetime Glick and other films and TV stints, he and Kasdan are close friends and Short has granted full access to everything that led up to his oft-partnership with Steve Martin and Only Murders in the Building. It will also include personal, as Short lost his wife of 30 years, Nancy Dolman, to cancer in 2010.

Kasdan had done the ILM docu Light & Magic for Imagine, and pitched the docu on Short. Wilkes said he got an immediate yes.

'Only Murders in the Building' ABC airings
From left: Steve Martin, Selena Gomez and Martin Short in ‘Only Murders in the Building’

“Marty hadn’t even re-emerged again as even someone currently on TV,” Wilkes said. “But it was a no-brainer because for me, anytime you get to go back and look at an exceptional creative person, and really understand where did they come from, where did that superpower come from, is just fascinating. It’s that origin story, learning about Marty, where he grew up, how he grew up, the group of people he fell into as he was trying to find his own voice in the comedy scene. There’s the story about the production of Godspell that he ended up in with everybody who became a part of SCTV and then that catapults to New York and SNL. It’s a pretty remarkable time, and we’ve heard the stories of so many other people who have come through that Eugene Levy being another example.

Martin Short as Nathan Thurm, Jackie Rogers Jr. & as Ed Grimley
Martin Short as Nathan Thurm, Jackie Rogers Jr. & as Ed Grimley

“Marty’s also very private and he had turned down other opportunities, but because it was Larry, very quickly we got access to an incredible archive that Marty himself has kept. He and his wife are those people who, between them, captured everything on home movie footage, some of it 8mm and 16 mm and when video became a thing, that camera was running constantly at every family event, the behind the scenes of things. They’re going to an award show, they’re in the car together, he’s on a cruise ship, and somehow Paul McCartney’s playing the piano and him and Steve dancing with their families and their kids. So it becomes this very, very intimate portrait of an artist as told by somebody who as a friend was there through a lot of it. So we’re just starting that one, and I think it’s going to be a very personal, beautiful telling of this unique person’s story.”

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