When people complain about Hollywood’s obsession with blockbusters, they often trace the root of the problem to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, blaming Jaws and Star Wars for creating the industry’s tentpole business model. It’s a silly argument. This summer’s crop of aspiring megahits—Iron Man 3, Fast & Furious 6, Star Trek Into Darkness, White House Down—have little in common with the charming exuberance of Star Wars or the patient suspense of Jaws. For better or worse, most contemporary blockbusters are rapid-fire entertainment machines, pumping out action at a dizzying clip. We don’t live in a world that Spielberg and Lucas created; we live in the one that Jerry Bruckheimer spun from it.
Bruckheimer turned 70 a couple of weeks ago, and while his legacy as one of Hollywood’s most bankable producers is secure, his future isn’t. After years of hits, Bruckheimer has been humbled by recent commercial misfires such as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Prince of Persia and, most embarrassingly, The Lone Ranger. And last week it was announced that he and Disney will split next year, ending a partnership in place since the early 1990s.
Bruckheimer isn’t retiring anytime soon. (“[Disney and I] will continue working together on Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure and other projects we have developed together at the studio,” he said in a statement.) But now that he’s a septuagenarian with a few duds on his résumé, it’s fair to ask whether the Bruckheimer era has ended.
Most film critics hope so. Though Bruckheimer has produced great movies such as American Gigolo and Black Hawk Down, that’s not what comes to mind when we think of his ubiquitous Jerry Bruckheimer Films logo. Instead, we think of big explosions, rocking soundtracks, macho banter and busy plots that make more noise than sense. More than any other director or producer, he’s responsible for shaping the modern Hollywood blockbuster. He did such a good job, in fact, that he ended up making himself and others like him irrelevant in the process.
Bruckheimer first established himself in the 1980s with Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer, his producing partnership with Don Simpson, Paramount’s former president of production. Together they shepherded films including Flashdance, Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop—huge hits that have a propulsive, somewhat tacky appeal. Simpson and Bruckheimer quickly got a reputation as Hollywood’s bad-boy producers, though that designation was mainly because of Simpson, who became legendary for being a temperamental, prostitute-obsessed junkie. By comparison, Bruckheimer, who had studied psychology and worked in advertising, was the diligent yin to Simpson’s gregarious, unstable yang.
Simpson’s death in 1996 from heart failure due to cocaine and pill-popping occurred shortly after Bruckheimer ended his partnership with the increasingly unreliable producer. But with Simpson or on his own, Bruckheimer has had a knack for knowing how to get asses in seats; over the last 30 years he has produced 19 movies that grossed more than $100 million each in the U.S., and he has often been ahead of the curve of blockbuster trends. You can hate him—and lots of critics do, calling his movies juvenile and shallow—but you can’t deny his commercial appeal or what he brought to the Hollywood event movie.
As Hollywood began embracing blockbuster culture in the early 1980s, it was Bruckheimer (with Simpson) who locked onto the idea of making films that could attract the masses. In a 2002 interview, Bruckheimer got it exactly right when he drew a distinction between his movies and the populist protest music of Bruce Springsteen: “He writes about a certain audience who buys his records. We make movies not about an audience, but we make movies that appeal to that audience.”
And those movies capture the zeitgeist. Flashdance has the flavor of an MTV video. Beverly Hills Cop features Eddie Murphy, the most explosive comic talent of the 1980s. Top Gun is like a cinematic video game. Renowned New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael memorably dismissed Top Gun as a “self-referential commercial…a recruiting poster that isn’t concerned with recruiting but with being a poster.” That was almost the point: A Bruckheimer film was supposed to annoy older, more sophisticated audiences who would never spend an evening watching young men cracking wise while playing a homoerotic game of volleyball or shooting guns. Bruckheimer, primarily making R-rated movies, was willing to risk losing younger viewers if it meant cementing a rep for delivering “edgy” event movies that were slicker and cooler than his competitors’. In a sense, he never left advertising: Now he was simply selling a lifestyle through movies.