Bruckheimer's shop has shows on two networks this fall
It’s 5 a.m. in Tokyo, but Jerry Bruckheimer’s already awake — and on the phone with CBS prexy/CEO Leslie Moonves.Bruckheimer wants to know whether Moonves, who’s in New York, plans to renew reality skein “The Amazing Race.” The Emmy-nommed skein has earned critical praise, but garners so-so ratings. Moonves hasn’t made up his mind yet on “Race.” And Bruckheimer knows a call –even from a continent away –can’t hurt. Rolling out of bed a tad early to navigate the world of network TV remains a fairly new phenomenon for the king of the summer blockbuster. But Bruckheimer has somehow found a way to don a second crown without missing a beat. As the newly annointed prince of primetime, TV outsider Bruckheimer has suddenly become a quintessential TV insider. With six shows in the works for next season, Bruckheimer joins the ranks of TV titans such as John Wells, Dick Wolf, Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley. “Bruckheimer’s batting average is extraordinary,” Moonves says. “The rapidity of that success is pretty phenomenal. Even the terrific producers of our day, the Kelleys, the Bochcos, didn’t explode as quickly.” Moonves should know — CBS has virtually turned into the “Columbia Bruckheimer System,” thanks to “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and its spinoff, “CSI: Miami.” Eye is also home to comer “Without a Trace” (poised to challenge “ER” on Thursday nights) and frosh entry “Cold Case.” Bruckheimer’s also hit the big time where it counts: In back-end profits. The producer stands to earn tens of millions of dollars off his rapid-fire string of hit skeins. “CSI” has already been sold in off-net to Spike TV for fall 2004 ($1.6 million a seg), while “CSI: Miami” will reap similar riches from A&E starting in fall 2006 ($1.025 million). As a profit participant on the show, Bruckheimer will see a nice cut. Ditto from the foreign sales deals, which Alliance Atlantis has inked around the world for both shows. That’s not to mention another potential windfall once “CSI” passes season four and a new license fee kicks in. It’s hard to gauge specifics in the complicated world of TV accounting, but the shows may be worth as much as $20 million apiece for Bruckheimer. “Arguably, ‘CSI’ will make him more money than ‘Pearl Harbor’ did,” Moonves says. The Eye topper calls Bruckheimer “one of the few producers who comes out of a different medium but who respects this medium.” “Often times film producers will come in and give us their B-movie idea,” Moonves says. “Jerry’s ego is such where he’s an extraordinary producer. He helps when he can and gets out of the way when he needs to.” Bruckheimer’s TV triumph is far from an overnight phenomenon, however. Until “CSI” changed the face of Bruckheimer TV, the producer’s small-screen output had consisted of ABC’s short-lived adaptation of feature “Dangerous Minds,” as well as the cheesy syndie action hour “Soldiers of Fortune Inc.” And even “CSI” almost didn’t happen. When Disney pulled out of the show — believing “CSI” would bomb internationally — Bruckheimer had to scramble to find a new financial backer. The producer found one in small Canadian shop Alliance Atlantis, which was mostly known in the U.S. for its telepics. No one expected “CSI” to take off — including Moonves, who originally scheduled it on Friday night after “The Fugitive,” the show pundits expected would hit. But “CSI” is now the top-rated drama on TV. Steering Bruckheimer TV from obscurity, through the dark early days of “CSI” and through its current hit wave is Jonathan Littman, 40, who’s run the division since 1997. Execs like Moonves credit Littman for turning what was a small offshoot of Bruckheimer’s film division into a production powerhouse. Under Littman, Bruckheimer TV recently inked a rich four-year deal to remain at Warner Bros. TV through 2007. The pact covers all the overhead and talent costs for Bruckheimer’s TV operations. A very methodological producer/exec, Littman joined Bruckheimer after six years at Fox, where he handled dramas such as “Melrose Place.” Upon joining the company, Littman says it was apparent that Bruckheimer’s larger-than-life feature formula didn’t work in TV. “There are certain elements of Jerry’s movies, in size and scope, that do not translate to the smallscreen,” Littman says. “Plus, his movies are on Starz and HBO every night of the week, so how do you compete with that in primetime?” Once “CSI” hit, Littman realized they’d found a winning direction for Bruckheimer TV. “Going back to Jerry’s smaller movies, the films that aren’t about armageddons, they’re about process, about immersing yourself into interesting worlds,” Littman says. “We had to brand the TV department.” As a result, the name “Bruckheimer” has come to mean something very different in TV than film. While Bruckheimer is frequently criticized in film circles for his over-the-top actioners, critics have been much more kind to his TV work (although they may be tiring of TV’s procedural-oriented crime wave spawned by “CSI’s” success). Still, Littman says Bruckheimer TV and its feature-oriented sibling are both focused on creating populist projects. You won’t find an artsy project or soft drama in the mix. “(Bruckheimer’s TV and film projects) have two things in common: They’re very commercial projects,” Littman says. “And we don’t want to be elitist about anything.” Part of what fuels Bruckheimer’s drive into TV is his fascination with the medium’s fast pace, Littman says. “He gets off on the fact that a script lands on his desk, and 20 days later he sees a rough cut,” he says. Littman says he tested Bruckheimer’s patience with the medium before joining the company. “When I first met with Jerry, I asked him, ‘How much are you going to be involved?'” Littman says. “Because feature people are fairly absentee –they like the idea of TV, but they don’t want to do the work. Jerry said to me, ‘I like to produce, I do the work.’ That has bourne itself out to be true.” According to Littman, Bruckheimer reads every script and watches every rough cut. When last season’s penultimate episode of “CSI” included a plot point that he didn’t buy, Bruckheimer hashed it out with the show’s producers. “Jerry can really teach you how to produce,” Littman says. “He’s a master. It makes you better. I’m much better now at what I do, after watching how he handles situations and the way he looks at things.” An exec at Warner Bros. TV also notes that the shingle’s TV productions benefit from Bruckheimer’s team’s filmcentric touch. “They swoop in and put that finishing touch,” he says. “They really post-produce these pilots and develop the distinctive look for these shows. That’s Bruckheimer.” Success looms, but Littman says the division isn’t about to change the way it does business. With six shows on the air, Bruckheimer TV plans to develop just two scripts for next season. And they operate one of the smallest shops in town, given the number of projects on the air — just three execs (including one who’s shared with the film side). The division’s particularly hungry to get a comedy on the air. And right now, at least, it is pulling all the stops to get “The Amazing Race” back for another season — including enlisting Bruckheimer himself, live from Tokyo, to make a few calls back to the States. “There’s such a thing as growing too big too fast,” Littman says. “We’re not real anxious for the company to blow up, and suddenly you’re carrying an overhead you can’t cover. You don’t need to do that to be successful. “Success comes in increments,” he says. “Slow and steady wins the race.”
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