Marketing Einstein: How Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Nat Geo brought a complex character to life

Ron Howard and Brian Grazer talk with Variety executive editor Debra Birnbaum at the Massive event / Doug Zanger

Many filmmakers have brought Albert Einstein to the big screen, but few have delved as deep as the new show Genius, a collaboration between Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment and the National Geographic channel.

The 10-part series stars Geoffrey Rush as Einstein and Johnny Flynn as the younger version of the scientific genius. Grazer and Howard talked at the Massive event by Variety in Los Angeles on Wednesday (March 22), with Debra Birnbaum, executive editor of Variety, about getting the series made and how they marketed the show.

Though Imagine is more known for its epic movies (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind), they both have a love for bringing a new vision to historical characters and events. With Genius, they also found a partner and a platform in National Geographic that allows them to tell a longer story about a very complex man in very complicated situations.

“Einstein is the modern progenitor of disruption,” said Grazer, who noted that he has had curiosity conversations over the last 30 years with fellow curious minds and that Einstein was always at the forefront of conversations. When Grazer heard that Walter Isaacson had written a book (Einstein: His Life and Universe) and that producer Gigi Pritzker had the rights to the book, they knew they could bring it to life and make it Nat Geo’s first limited scripted series.

“The thing about Einstein is genius is now sexy. He’s an icon we really don’t understand…we got our dream director: Ron Howard,” Grazer joked. “None of us knew he would do this, but he was attracted to this material.”

Howard said he was excited after reading the script, then the book, especially since he had read numerous film scripts before about Einstein, but was disappointed. With Nat Geo, he knew that he would be able to make what he wanted.

“We do have this relationship with NatGeo, and their passion for it was so exciting. I knew they would get it. Their brand could actually inform this, said Howard, adding that the Nat Geo brand means authenticity, immersion, fascination, vision, and an incredible visual sense. “It’s the story linked to the platform, to the outlet.”

Grazer and Howard knew Nat Geo was the right home for their show, especially after they put together a research reel and stylebook. “They immediately responded as a good audience, and the marketing materials came back reflecting this aesthetic,” said Howard.

One of the first successes on the marketing of Genius was the Super Bowl ad that focused on Rush’s Einstein playing the violin. After the camera pans over a scientific note-strewn floor, we hear the recognizable sound of the violin playing Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” When the clip is nearly over, Rush pulls Einstein’s iconic tongue-out silly face, followed by the title of the show.

“It was a great Super Bowl ad. Nat Geo…they are brilliant marketers,” Grazer said, adding that Imagine always sees the importance of marrying the right artists to the right platform. “Do they covet content? If you covet it, you have a better chance of framing it. And if you frame it properly it becomes very valuable.” He noted that the Super Bowl spot won an award for being best ad in Super Bowl (a Super Clio).

Howard added that Rush had learned to play the violin a bit, and that he wanted to add a wink to the idea of the ad. They shot a scene of him playing and doing the face, and it hit the mark. “It worked out really well,” said Howard.

Grazer and Howard said that highlighting Einstein and digging into his life and personality was highly relevant to today’s world.

“It’s amazing how close society came from not benefitting from Albert Einstein’s genius,” said Howard. “His form of free thinking was frowned upon…he faced pressures over and over again. (Genius) is not just about the Eureka moments. It’s kind of about the high wire act he had to walk to express himself.”

Howard called the series “surprisingly engaging” while Grazer noted that even his teenaged kids were curious about seeing the show.

“It’s personal to them…the relationship of what Einstein implies to them. They live in a world where technology is a tool for disruption. Einstein didn’t have that.”

If the previews and marketing materials are any indication, Genius should be able to tell the story of a scientific genius better than it’s been told on the big screen.

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