End of an era: Jerry Bruckeimer and Walt Disney Studios end deal

Cue the melancholy score because producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s long run at the Walt Disney Studios appears to be over. Late Thursday evening the Mouse House announced the studio and Bruckheimer had “mutually agreed” to end his first look deal. Yes, his string of recent, expensive misfires was the private excuse, but even the venerable producer must have seen this coming a long time ago. The age of the studio super-producer is simply over.

There have been notable eras of mega-producers over the past few decades, but the most recent trio included Scott Rudin at Paramount, Joel Silver at Warner Bros. and Bruckheimer at Disney. These men had clout with talent and a financial track record to back up their influence at the top of the nation’s biggest media empires.  Rudin had a profitable (“Sister Act,” “The First Wives Club”) and prestigious (“The Hour,” “The Truman Show”) run, but when Sherry Lansing and Jonathan Dolgen left Paramount in came Brad Grey and it was simply time to go.  Silver, on the other hand, was the Warner Bros. tentpole and action maestro who brought WB the “Lethal Weapon” and “Matrix” franchises as well as a slew of relatively profitable genre pictures including “Romeo Must Die,” “Gothkia” and “V for Vendetta.”  While Silver had his moments with the studio brass (we won’t even touch Rudin’s infamous track record – but hey, it works, right?), he was finally done in by too many expensive misfires.  Every few years a hit would seem to save his deal (“Sherlock Holmes,” “The Book of Eli”), but then another few bombs would make his time there increasingly short.  And then the last producer standing was Bruckheimer.

Unlike Rudin or Silver, Bruckheimer never seemed to have an interest in the prestige game (the random “Veronica Guerin” aside). Along with his long departed former partner Don Simpson, he helped reinvent the action picture in the ’80s and ’90s.  Frankly, his resume from those two decades should should be worth the Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Award alone.  “Flashdance,” “Top Gun,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Crimson Tide,” “The Rock,” “Con Air,” etc.  Sure, he had hits at other studios after Disney passed on them (“Bad Boys” and “Black Hawk Down” at Sony Pictures), but no one other than the animators at Pixar have been as important to the company’s bottom line over the past 20 years. For reference, add up the box office for “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Remember the Titans” and, of course, the monstrous “Pirates of the Caribbean” series.  Most importantly, you could count the number of bombs Bruckheimer produced on one hand. And, his library of films made Disney hundreds of millions of dollars during the DVD and home video boom at the turn of the century. So, weather it was Michael Eisner or Bob Iger as CEO, Bruckheimer had little to worry about when his first look deal and uber-producer perks (i.e., the financial incentives for delivering a blockbuster) came up for renewal. 

Intriguingly, the cracks in Bruckheimer’s golden touch began when he finally started to have success in television. His first big hit was the Emmy winning “The Amazing Race” in 2001.That was followed by venerable CBS dramas “Without a Trace,” “Cold Case” and, of course, the “C.S.I.” franchise.  Those years also brought the lucrative “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “National Treasure” sequels, but also unexpected missteps such as “The Sorcer’s Apprentice” (easy to blame on a radical and now abandoned change in studio marketing) or “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” (which likely sat on the shelf way to long). 

Stranger though was the fact Bruckheimer couldn’t get any original films off the ground under new studio chief Rick Ross. Like many of the producers on the lot at the time, Bruckheimer had a great relationship with former chief Dick Cook (whose firing was one of the worst mistakes Bob Iger has ever made).  Ross, the former Disney Channel president, lasted barely over two years and one of the reasons he was let go was precisely because of how slow he was to get new films in the pipeline. Instead of the duo bonding over their long tenures with the company, the only picture they got greenlit was the fourth “Pirates” film, “On Stranger Tides.” That movie was one of the few blockbusters under Ross watch, but it was also a creative disaster earning some of the worst reviews of the year for any studio release and possibly damaging the franchise’s brand (already on tenuous ground after the previous two installments).  And then, of course, this past summer’s “The Lone Ranger.”

Perhaps Ross saw something the public and Bruckheimer didn’t, but in one of his last acts he fought hard to keep the budget as low as possible and used the press to plead his case.  It didn’t matter that Johnny Depp was on board reuniting with his original “Pirates” helmer.  Many questioned how the film would work by having the bigger star (in this case Depp) play Tonto, the traditional sidekick to the masked hero, but the film eventually got the go ahead after everyone involved took a pay cut.  It was only the second Bruckheimer release for the studio in three years. From 2000-2010 he had delivered 17 films to the studio. How times had changed.

“The Lone Ranger” turned out to be one of the biggest bombs of 2013.  It has made only $244.7 million worldwide on a reported $215 production budget (conservative marketing worldwide would be close to $100 million, do the math).  That made it the perfect excuse for new studio head Alan Horn and Iger to let Bruckheimer’s first look deal end. The irony of course, is that Horn had huge success planning tentpoles during his long tenure at Warner Bros. In theory, Bruckheimer should be the type of producer he’d thrive with (and they had worked previously together).  Perhaps, outside of the context of a first look deal they will be able to extend Bruckheimer’s legacy on the Burbank lot. Certainly, the now delayed to 2016 “Pirates of the Caribbean 5” will still happen and Bruckheimer will be contractually involved.  Beyond that? Well, as the prolifically successful Mr. Rudin might tell his peer, “Freedom has its virtues.”  The rest is now history.