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American Cinematheque Honoree Jerry Bruckheimer on His Hits and Misses

The blockbuster producer talks about past projects and future plans

Jerry bruckheimer
Jeff Riedel/Contour by Getty Images

When Jerry Bruckheimer becomes the 27th recipient of the American Cinematheque Award on Dec. 12, he follows such filmmakers as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Al Pacino. But, fittingly, Bruckheimer is the first producer so honored. For while the self-effacing and low-key vet is not one of those producers given to shamelessly tooting his own horn or screaming to underscore his power, for over three decades now he’s racked up hit after hit — earning more than $125 billion worldwide — to emerge as one of the most successful producers Hollywood has ever seen. And he’s just signed a three-year, first-look agreement for theatrical films with Paramount Pictures.

And thanks to such movie and TV franchises as the “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “National Treasure,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “The Amazing Race” and “CSI,” Bruckheimer has also achieved what few other producers ever have — a brand-name awareness with the general public. While highbrow critics may look down their noses and tastemakers gleefully predict failure (Pirates? Box office poison), the multiplatform producer clearly has his finger on the mass audience’s pulse, and they flock to his high-concept “event” movies and tune into the primetime procedurals that always deliver what they want — stars, spectacle, adventure and laughs. In a word, entertainment.

His definition of what constitutes entertainment is both personal and simple; “I always ask myself first, do I want to see it?” says the Detroit-born former adman. “People assume I have some magic formula, but I honestly don’t know what audiences want to see. I just know what I like, and everything I’ve done has been based on that approach. It’s always personal, and it has to be. And I’ve never made a movie I didn’t want to see.”

Bruckheimer’s tastes have usually meshed with those of the hoi polloi, a gift he ascribes to his Midwestern roots. “I grew up loving hamburgers and hot dogs and seeing the movies that the average person loved to see and I’m still the same guy. I want to sit there and be entertained.”

And even when they haven’t meshed (“Veronica Guerin,” “King Arthur,” and this summer’s disastrous “The Lone Ranger” reboot), he’s quickly learned from his mistakes and honed his Midas touch, gradually eschewing more marginal projects in favor of blockbuster tentpoles over the years. “Every producer has films that fail, and I think you learn far more from your failures than your successes,” he says. “You try not to duplicate (what didn’t work) and I’ve had pictures that have been financially disappointing, but even then I’ve usually been pretty happy with what we’ve done creatively and proud of the result.”

Bruckheimer says that’s the case even with “The Lone Ranger,” a costly failure (with an estimated budget of $250 million against a domestic gross of just $89 million) that reportedly precipitated the end of his longtime first-look deal with Disney, despite the $3.7 billion worldwide box office booty his “Pirates” franchise alone has delivered to the studio to date. “I have absolutely no regrets (about making it),” he states. “I think it’ll be one of those pictures that people will look back on and reassess.”

He’s quick to dismiss any suggestion that the flop’s fallout impacted his Disney deal. “They’re doing their own thing and the harder-edged stuff we want to do, going back to ‘The Rock,’ ‘Con Air’ and ‘Black Hawk Down,’ doesn’t fit the Disney brand now that Touchstone’s gone,” he explains. “Basically the whole business is changing, not just for producers, and with the continuing rising production and marketing budgets of movies we’re all trying to cut costs in every area.”

Tellingly, Bruckheimer’s next mega-release, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” will have a leaner budget (Disney hopes to keep it “under $200 million,” he says) and a cheaper team of directors: “Kon-Tiki’s” Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg. It’ll also have a delayed release, “hopefully in summer 2016,” he adds.

Despite the fact that the last “Pirates” installment grossed more than $1 billion, the producer stresses that, “every film, even in this franchise, is a risk.” Bruckheimer says he’d like to keep extending the franchise, “but that’s up to Johnny (Depp, the star). We love making ’em, and as long as he wants to continue, I’ll show up.”

In the meantime, he has a full slate of movie and TV projects demanding his attention, including “Top Gun 2,” another “National Treasure,” possibly another “Beverly Hills Cop,” and “Beware the Night,” a paranormal thriller.

In contrast to the often glacial pace of movie development, TV moves “a lot faster,” notes Bruckheimer who recently launched his latest TV series “Hostages” on CBS and the reality show “Martial Law: Texas” on TNT. “We’ve also sold a bunch of ideas to the networks, so the TV side’s also very busy.”

And while a new games division venture with MTV fell apart — “they decided they didn’t want to do it in the end” — Bruckheimer sees it as a blessing in disguise. “We can now just focus on our core business of movies and TV.”