<p>How Hollywood’s greatest producer created the modern blockbuster and made himself irrelevant in the process.</p>
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.
Part of what got audiences hooked was testosterone. Star Wars has boyish, gee-whiz adventure, but Bruckheimer’s films feel simultaneously adult and adolescent. Whether it’s Top Gun, Bad Boys, Crimson Tide, The Rock or Bad Company, the predominant image from a Bruckheimer film is of unflappable hardasses bantering as if the world were one big frat house. Women have a place in his movies but usually just on the periphery: Téa Leoni as a damsel in distress in Bad Boys; Kelly McGillis, Liv Tyler and Kate Beckinsale as love interests in Top Gun, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, respectively. When he made movies starring women, he was savvy about it. Michelle Pfeiffer’s inner-city school drama Dangerous Minds was overshadowed by Coolio’s “Gangster’s Paradise,” an example of Bruckheimer’s ability to think beyond theatrical revenue to create popular, lucrative soundtracks for his films. (For many people, Top Gun’s soundtrack is as iconic as anything else in the movie.) As for Coyote Ugly, he was able to sell a movie about lissome young women by featuring them on the cover of Maxim, a magazine manufactured for impressionable horn dogs.
But Bruckheimer’s most infamous contribution to the modern event movie was his discovery of Michael Bay, a commercial and video director. If Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop define 1980s flash, Bay’s Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor are amped-up 1990s swagger, saluting all-American masculinity and hopped-up visual pyrotechnics. The notion that summer movies need to be epic events—goofy but also unreservedly awesome—can be felt in every frame of Bay’s escapist flicks. Without Bay, it’s harder to imagine the sensation-overload films of Zack Snyder (300) or the giddy dopiness of Roland Emmerich’s work (Independence Day).
As the 21st century began, studios became increasingly interested in movies that could play to the widest audience possible, which meant moving away from R-rated films to films rated PG-13. Again, Bruckheimer was ahead of the curve, producing Disney Studios’ first PG-13 movie—Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. By tamping down his trademark testosterone, he delivered a template for the new breed of four-quadrant hit, that commercial Holy Grail that can rope in men, women, the young and the old. But as successful as the Pirates films have been—grossing $3.7 billion worldwide—they also signaled a change in Hollywood moviemaking that ultimately worked against marquee names, including Bruckheimer.
In 2003, when Curse of the Black Pearl was the third-highest grossing film of the year, six of the year’s top 10 moneymakers were either sequels or remakes. Every year since then has averaged around the same ratio (if not higher)—and that’s not counting movies such as Iron Man that are based on well-known pop-culture characters. This trend doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon. Thanks to hit franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean, audiences have become less interested in stars than they are in recognizable properties. People won’t necessarily check out Tom Cruise in Oblivion, but they’re onboard for Mission: Impossible 5. Will Smith can’t get audiences to see After Earth, but Men in Black 3 will bring out the crowds. It doesn’t even matter if a franchise isn’t that old: Sony successfully rebooted Spider-Man shortly after Tobey Maguire left, and Universal plowed forward with a Jason Bourne sequel, The Bourne Legacy, that had little to do with Matt Damon’s character. Nowadays, studios aren’t in the business of breaking new talents the way Bruckheimer once did (e.g., Cruise in Top Gun, Smith in Bad Boys, Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop)—they want to manage their brands in the same way people worry over their investment portfolios.
In such an environment, relying on formula and sticking to PG-13 ratings makes good business sense but is hell on a producer who can’t generate new franchises. From Disney’s perspective, churning broad-appeal Marvel movies and Disneyland-derived films like Tomorrowland is a safer bet than risking another Sorcerer’s Apprentice—which, ironically, might have done better if it had been a straight-up adaptation of the memorable “Fantasia” sequence. These days, originality is a liability. And just as stars are becoming dependent on franchises for surefire hits, big-name producers have to worry about pre-established tentpoles. Studios simply don’t need salesmen like Bruckheimer as much; the films now sell themselves.
And yet, these new movies lack the seasoning that made Bruckheimer’s biggest hits so memorable. Top Gun and Bad Boys have a cocky exuberance that feels sunny and uncomplicated. Modern event films are darker, in part as a response to 9/11, but also because franchises copied the Bourne films and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, opting for a tougher, more realistic look at their characters. (Tellingly, the only recent films that feel remotely like Bruckheimer’s are Bay’s overblown Transformers movies, which Bruckheimer didn’t produce but bear his DNA.)
Bruckheimer’s specific brand of unfiltered, happy adolescence isn’t so present at the multiplexes anymore. Surprisingly, I miss it. Top Gun was once viewed as deeply cynical and soulless—Kael’s comment about it being a poster for itself could be an indictment of Hollywood’s dumbed-down development strategy ever since—but it’s a film that, in hindsight, possesses a sweet naivete in comparison with modern blockbusters’ industrial-strength explosiveness and gloom. That doesn’t mean those of us who rolled our eyes at Bruckheimer’s movies’ outlandishness were wrong. But at his best, he found that sweet spot where showmanship, escapism and giddiness combine to produce that irreplaceable experience that Bruckheimer loved as a child of going to the theater “and sticking your hand in the popcorn and watching a great film.”
Bruckheimer has hinted that after parting ways with Disney he might go back to making the sort of R-rated movies he pursued in his earlier years that aren’t conducive to Disney’s family-centric credo. But the truth is, Bruckheimer’s old R-rated mentality doesn’t have much of a place in Hollywood’s four-quadrant business model. In a sense, maybe his era isn’t ending so much as coming full circle. He started off as a pseudo–bad boy; his next chapter might be making movies the system he helped create no longer has a place for.
Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. His new biography of Wilco, Sunken Treasure, is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter.