EXCLUSIVE: Tonight, the 27th American Cinematheque Award honors Hollywood’s longest-running and most commercially successful producer in Jerry Bruckheimer. Over the past 40 years, Bruckheimer has been the most consistent generator of films that filled theaters, moved popcorn and displayed more onscreen explosions than anyone else. First with late partner Don Simpson and then as a solo act, Bruckheimer’s films have earned estimated worldwide revenues of $16 billion in ticket sales, video and recording revenues, and he once had 10 TV series on networks in a single season, a record that still stands. Bruckheimer has something to prove as he moves from Disney to Paramount in the wake of the disappointing returns on The Lone Ranger. Bruckheimer doesn’t relish looking back as he starts a new chapter in a storied career that will include more installments of franchises Pirates Of The Caribbean, National Treasure, Bad Boys, Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun. But he invited Deadline to his spacious Santa Monica headquarters recently to spend an afternoon reflecting on how far the son of a Detroit suit salesman has come.
DEADLINE: Your long run as Disney’s signature event film producer ends with your return to Paramount, a place where you and late former partner Don Simpson made some of the seminal hits of the 1980s. Disney moved toward a branded supplier program built around Marvel, Star Wars, DreamWorks, Pixar and away from proven producers. That is emblematic of the business now as studio producer deals fall by the wayside. You raised $20 million a couple years ago through Barclays Bank for development, and had a line on over $300 million, positioning you to be in step with hybrid producer/financiers with co-fi coin. Why did you instead opt for a throwback first-look Paramount deal?
BRUCKHEIMER: I like the camaraderie and collaboration of developing at a studio. Brad Grey I’ve worked with in the past and enjoy. I developed Top Gun 2 with Tony Scott, Paramount executives and David Ellison, and had a good experience with them. They are aggressive about material, and how they market, advertise and distribute their films.
DEADLINE: Most producers who can are raising their own money, as studios make fewer films and downgrade traditional first-look producing deals. You had the money in place and no producer has your long track record of hits if you wanted to raise more. Why didn’t you go that route?
BRUCKHEIMER: Because you spend your time finding millions, setting up time-consuming meetings with bankers, accountants and lawyers. It sucks the energy out of you and you are not spending your time making movies. For me, it was like trying on a suit and not liking the fit. I’d rather spend my time sitting in a room with a writer or a director, working out the beats of a story, or sitting with a designer to figure out how to make this set as cool as possible. A lot of people are good at running around raising money, and I’m not saying it’s something that isn’t in my future if I have to do it. I’d just much rather work at the creative end of the business.
DEADLINE: In your first stop at Paramount, you made films like Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop, and you are drafting new versions of each almost 30 years later. Studios all over are rebooting and sequelizing old stuff. Why is it so hard to create new franchises today?
BRUCKHEIMER: It’s always been hard to launch a franchise. You have to hit the mother lode on the first one, then figure out how to create longevity for each of the main characters. That’s not easy. We got very fortunate with Beverly Hills Cop because Eddie was just the greatest new comic that I’d seen. He’d made only a few movies previously and I could see he had the ability to capture the imagination of the audience. 48 Hours and Trading Places made that clear. But they thought we were nuts to have him carry a lead in a movie.
BRUCKHEIMER: Because in both pictures he was a co-star.
DEADLINE: Didn’t Paramount prefer Sylvester Stallone for the Axel Foley role anyway?
BRUCKHEIMER: Originally. Here’s what happened. We went to Paramount and said, we want Eddie for this. They had the script, they loved it, they wanted to make the movie. They also had a pay or play commitment with Stallone, and they didn’t just want to pay him. So they wanted him for this movie. We said, we love Sly, but we created this script for Eddie. Even though Eddie didn’t know that we’d developed it for him. But we said, fine, you sign the checks, we’ll do what you want. We met with Sly and he said, I write my own stuff. We said OK, go ahead with your own thing. And when the project came in it had gotten way too expensive. He had written in car chases and everything. Barry Diller said, wait a minute, we’re not spending that kind of money on this movie. So he turned to us and asked who we would put in this movie if Sly couldn’t do it? We said, Eddie Murphy, but we didn’t say we’d originally given it to the studio for Eddie. Barry said, great, go make the movie! And he gave Sly his script back with all the things he wrote and Sly went off and used that to make Cobra, which was the direction he had taken Beverly Hills Cop. We went off and made it with Eddie. They still thought we were crazy because this was the first time an African-American had carried a studio movie. I think, ever. We were told we were nuts to spend that kind of money on Eddie, alone.
DEADLINE: Take movies like Pacific Rim, World War Z or The Lone Ranger this past summer. Each were franchise plays, but at $200 million or more, the high costs made it like shooting at a narrow moving target and hard to turn profit. The old way was to make films like Beverly Hills Cop for low price and if they build natural momentum, hello sequel.
BRUCKHEIMER: Beverly Hills Cop wasn’t expensive at all. It’s just so hard to make a successful movie to begin with, and to figure out which can be sustained. A lot of movies I’ve done, like The Lone Ranger, could have been franchises. But the audience didn’t brace itself for what might happen next with the characters. That is just how it has always happened. The difference is that now, everything is just a lot more expensive. Back then, Top Gun cost $14 million and Beverly Hills Cop was $8 million.
DEADLINE: Why didn’t The Lone Ranger catch on with audiences?
BRUCKHEIMER: I don’t really know. I can’t definitively tell you why Pirates Of The Caribbean worked so well. Nobody wants to make a picture that doesn’t make its money back, especially us. I loved the movie and enjoyed making it. You make the best movie you can, you put it out and then you find out. They did a good job marketing the movie, so I can’t say anything about that. It’s just one of those films that fell between the cracks. It certainly wasn’t helped by the negative press before the movie even got made. There were a lot of discussions about a lot of things that the audience shouldn’t care about, and maybe that turned them off.
DEADLINE: The average person or a journalist like me might say, $200 million or more is too much to spend on a picture. What doesn’t the lay person understand when they make statements like that?
BRUCKHEIMER: The part that gets me is, the audience only pays between $6 and $10 bucks, and they don’t pay any more when a film costs $200 million. It shouldn’t concern them. All they should care about is, did I love it? Do I want to go see it again? Will I tell my friends to go see it? That’s all that should be important to an audience. The media feeds into the cost of the movie, rather than, is it entertaining? Have the filmmakers used every nickel they spent to best advantage, where I can see it on the screen and it gave me a better experience? That’s what’s important, the moviegoer experience. And it is also important that someone like me looks at movies done by others that are so well done, so exciting, with such big endings that I say, ‘Jeez, how do we compete with that?’ And the way you compete is to be more inventive in finding concepts, actors and directors who’ll give the audience a real thrill ride.