Simultaneous sequels were producer's biggest challenge, but tracking points to a gamble that will likely pay off

When “Pirates of the Caribbean” came Jerry Bruckheimer’s way, Walt Disney Pictures was in the midst of theme park mania.

Also in development were “The Country Bears” and “The Haunted Mansion,” also movies based on Disneyland/World attractions.

All three features came out within 18 months of each other in 2002 and 2003, but it was obvious from early on that “Pirates” would be something different, something bigger.

While there were any number of factors that went into “Pirates’ ” success and the other two pics’ relative failure, it was clear by late 2001 that Disney had special hopes for that franchise, as the studio brought its biggest producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, onboard.

“Jerry could take what we thought was a good idea and turn it into a great idea,” recalls Walt Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook. “Because of our ambition for this movie, because we knew it would be a complicated production, there were so many elements there that we didn’t think we knew anyone who could do the project except Jerry.”

While many of the mega-producer’s pictures are developed at his own company, “Pirates” fell onto his lap, so to speak, thanks to a long record of producing tentpoles for the Mouse.

“I always wanted to do a pirate movie, but I thought you had to approach it from a huge angle,” Bruckheimer recalls. “I gave the script (Disney) developed to (writers) Ted Eliot and Terry Rossio and they gave it that topspin that got me really excited about it.”

Now, thanks in part to his successful shepherding, “Pirates” stands as Bruckheimer’s most successful film of all time, with $305 million domestic and nearly $350 million overseas.

With two sequels scheduled within the next two years, it will undoubtedly become his most successful franchise, passing the “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Bad Boys” films.

But the “Pirates” follow-ups just may represent the biggest challenge Bruckheimer, and maybe any producer, has faced. Shot back-to-back on location in the Caribbean, with a combined budget estimated north of $300 million, the pics are, to put it bluntly, a logistical nightmare.

Not only did cast and crew have to be corralled for months of location shooting in the Bahamas, but they had to halt production when Hurricane Wilma blew through in October.

Yet now that effort and investment are looking like one of the safest bets of the year, as tracking for “Dead Man’s Chest,” the second “Pirates” movie, is through the roof.

The only other film that has tracked that well is “The Da Vinci Code,” which so far has grossed nearly $700 million worldwide and will likely hit $800 million.

In the build-up to the first “Pirates” three years ago, things didn’t look nearly so certain. Industryites, critics and audiences alike were wary about what seemed like the ultimate cynical corporate ploy: turning a theme park ride into a big-budget action adventure.

Behind the scenes, many were fretting about what turned out to be one of the film’s defining traits: the fey, Keith Richards-esque performance by Johnny Depp, miles away from any male lead ever seen in an action adventure previously, let alone a pirate movie.

Disney brass was wary and expressed that fear to Bruckheimer, in what seems to have ended up like a good cop/bad cop routine.

“We were a little concerned,” recalls Buena Vista Pictures prexy Nina Jacobson. “As you can imagine from the performances, the dailies were very, very out there.”

Jacobson spoke to Depp herself, and called Bruckheimer, leading the producer to talk to his star and make sure Depp heard the studio concerns without feeling too pressured.

“We already knew it played because we had a read-through and it was very funny,” Bruckheimer says. “Dailies are dailies, and you can be incredibly flamboyant as long as you have those moments of reality. I told the studio, ‘If you’re really worried, I’ll cut a scene together and show you a realistic cut.’

“I essentially said, ‘You guys hired him because of his brilliant interpretations of characters. You can get any guy to play it straight.’”

Whether due to faith or inertia, the decision to let Depp play the character as he intended proved a big hit among fans and critics and even garnered an Academy Award nomination, the last thing anyone expected from such a marketing tie-in enterprise.

Looking back at the franchise, there seems to be only one regret that sticks in Cook’s craw:

“These movies were so huge that we missed one other movie we would typically get from Jerry last year,” Cook says. “We’ve talked about how we don’t want to have to do that again.”

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