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Star moviemakers vie to be Mad Men

The best stories worth telling, I think, tend to be about interesting and accomplished people stepping into new worlds. That’s why I’ve been drawn to profiling Marissa Mayer in her first days as CEO of Yahoo , Oprah Winfrey as she started her TV network OWN, and Brenda Barnes, the former Sara Lee CEO who has heroically stepped up to a new life after suffering a stroke.

One of the best things about being a writer for Fortune is that these interesting and accomplished people take me into their new worlds. And I never know exactly where I’m going to end up.

When I heard that Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, the dynamic duo of moviemaking, were considering a new venture to advise companies on their brand-building, I jumped to talk with them about it. I visited Grazer, whom I’ve known for many years, at Imagine Entertainment in Los Angeles. When I reminded Grazer that his and Howard’s proposed foray reminded me of the time 20 years ago when the Hollywood honchos of Creative Artists Agency stole the Coca-Cola account from giant McCann Erickson , Grazer insisted they’re not brashly looking to show how Madison Avenue is failing to market brands well : “Oh my God, I so don’t think that,” he said, “I see the coolest shit in the ad industry.” The producer, whose films include Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, is drawn to helping companies build brands because, he says, “Everything is a story.”

To see Howard, whom I had never met, I drove to Remote Control Productions in Santa Monica. Talk about stepping into another world. Inside a nondescript building in a residential neighborhood, I entered a cavernous lair with 19th century red velvet couches, Gothic arches, Tiffany-style chandeliers, and some of the most sophisticated sound technology in the entertainment business.

This batcave-like lair is the sound studio of Hans Zimmer, the Oscar-winning composer who has scored more than 100 movies including The Lion King, Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, and–speaking of Batman–The Dark Knight. Howard, in a baseball cap, introduced himself and Zimmer and a crew of eight other guys; he explained that they were doing the music for Rush, Imagine’s upcoming movie about Formula 1 racing. “Sit in my chair,” Zimmer said, steering me to the cockpit of his sprawling sound system.

I sat in Zimmer’s chair and watched the first scene of Rush. “Play the next scene,” Howard said. When Zimmer and crew cleared out, Howard and I sat down to talk about moving beyond comfort zones–in his case, into the world of advertising. I had always heard that Howard, whom I grew up with watching Happy Days Tuesday nights on ABC , is one of the nicest guys in Hollywood. Based on our brief chat, I’d bet this is true. Click here to read my piece, the first in Fortune‘s new Face to Face series, about how Howard and Grazer hope to parlay their special storytelling talent to help companies tell stories about their brands.