Bruckheimer's big-picture values made 'feature TV' a natural fit
It wasn’t too long ago that blockbuster king Jerry Bruckheimer was just another film producer trying to break into television.
A small-screen version of his hit movie “Dangerous Minds” quickly came and went on ABC. His second stab at TV yielded a cheesy syndicated show, “Soldier of Fortune,” starring Dennis Rodman — yes, that Dennis Rodman.
“Nothing good is easy,” Bruckheimer says of the early bumps. “It takes time to understand the business, understand the whole system of how it works.”
Bruckheimer and his TV president, Jonathan Littman, weren’t deterred. Inspired by the TV empires of John Wells, David E. Kelley, Steven Bochco and others, Bruckheimer was hungry to get into TV in a big way.
For Bruckheimer, his plan made sense: Apply feature-quality production values to primetime TV and produce mini-movies each week.
“The quality of the work on TV is something that I’ve long thought was so good,” Bruckheimer says. “I thought we’d jump in and use the same kind of talent as we use in features, but do it on the small screen.”
It took a few years, but when Bruckheimer finally hit the TV scene, he hit it bigger than anyone had ever predicted. Now Bruckheimer is known as much for his TV presence as he is for his box office prowess.
“We approach TV as a serious business; it’s not a sideline for us,” he says. “We’re passionate about it; we put enormous energy into it.”
Bruckheimer and Littman managed to pull off a rare feat, building a TV company that rivaled major studios in terms of volume. When Bruckheimer scored 10 series on the fall 2005 skeds (consisting of six returning and four new shows), he grabbed the record for most skeins from a producer in a single season (besting Aaron Spelling, who at most had eight on the air at one time).
The Bruckheimer shows also influenced the look and feel of primetime TV.
“Jerry has coined the phrase ‘feature TV,'” says Warner Bros. TV prexy Peter Roth, whose studio houses Bruckheimer TV. “The phrase is often used as if it’s vernacular. It’s an experience that viewers have now come to expect. Every pilot aspires toward it. He began this most current wave.”
It all started to come together in 2001, when “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” premiered and surprised everyone — including CBS, which had focused its attention on an ill-fated remake of “The Fugitive” — by becoming an out-of-the-box smash.
That same year, Emmy fave “The Amazing Race” also preemed on the Eye, making Bruckheimer an unlikely reality TV titan as well.
Soon after the success of the original “CSI” came “CSI: Miami,” as well as “Without a Trace,” “Cold Case” and “CSI: NY,” among other shows. Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order” franchise may have launched the modern era of procedural drama, but it was the success of Bruckheimer’s three “CSI” skeins that cemented the genre as a smart business.
Roth believes the Bruckheimer shows came along at the right time, just as viewers were looking for more popcorn in their TV diet.
“Post-9/11, audiences were clamoring for shows about heroes in control, who were able to solve crimes and solve problems,” he says. “They wantedsomething reassuring and reaffirming. Bruckheimer’s timing was perfect, and he brought a look, a tone, a style, a spirit and a feel that had not been seen on network TV.”
Bruckheimer TV has not been immune to flops, however. The producer’s heavily hyped porn industry sudser “Skin” didn’t get any action at Fox, while last season’s Pentagon thriller “E-Ring” at NBC and the WB’s Don Johnson starrer “Just Legal” also didn’t perform.
Then there was Bruckheimer’s first real stab at comedy, “Modern Men,” which got lost in the WB shutdown shuffle.
“That’s the odds,” Littman says. “We defied the odds for a long time. They’re eventually going to catch up on you. Not everything you do is going to be hit. But you don’t care any less when they get canceled. It’s painful.”
In a bright spot, though, Littman and Bruckheimer were able to pitch CBS on bringing back the company’s other frosh skein, “Close to Home,” for another try.
Meanwhile, with the networks focused more on serials this year, there was less room for Bruckheimer-style procedurals — although the company scored a pickup at Fox with “Justice.” But despite the current frenzy surrounding dramas with ongoing storylines, Bruckheimer says he has no interest in exploring that form.
“It’s a much better business model,” Bruckheimer says of the procedural genre.
One form Bruckheimer is anxious to try again, however, is the sitcom.
“We’re exploring it,” he says.
Bruckheimer’s success in TV has convinced other filmmakers to give the small screen a try. Roth said Bruckheimer made TV “acceptable and cool.”
“He’s been almost a pied piper for some great feature talent,” Roth says. “I meet with more filmmakers than at any other time in my career, and I can’t help but think that Jerry helped pave the way for that.”