Bruckheimer: The brand name in movies
Critics be damned, producer on 'Glory Road' with audiences
By Todd Leopold
Jerry Bruckheimer's name is so well known it's featured prominently in the marketing of his movies.
THE BRUCKHEIMER FILE
Born: September 21, 1945, in Detroit, Michigan
Early career: Commercial producer in Detroit; one of his works, for Pontiac, earned him the attention of Madison Avenue agency BBD&O
First production credits: "The Culpepper Cattle Company" (1972, associated producer); "Farewell, My Lovely" (1975, producer)
Hit films include: "American Gigolo" (1980), "Flashdance" (1983, first film with business partner Don Simpson), "Beverly Hills Cop" (1984), "Top Gun" (1986), "Days of Thunder" (1990), "Bad Boys" (1995), "Crimson Tide" (1995), "The Rock" (1996), "Con Air" (1997), "Armageddon" (1998), "Remember the Titans" (2000), "Pearl Harbor" (2001), "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" (2003), "National Treasure" (2004)
TV series include: "CSI," "CSI: Miami," "CSI: NY," "Without a Trace," "Cold Case," "The Amazing Race"
Tidbit: Majored in psychology at the University of Arizona
Quote: Upon being told his movies make money, not art: "Thanks for reminding me. But I get great reviews from the Bank of America."
Sources: Internet Movie Database, Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, "Glory Road" production notes
Jerry Bruckheimer often is willing to take chances on directors such as "Glory Road's" Jim Gartner, who made his film debut with the work.
In fact, the producer is particularly fond of directors who come out of television commercials as he did, including Gartner, Tony Scott ("Top Gun," "Enemy of the State"), Ridley Scott ("Black Hawk Down"), Simon West ("Con Air"), Gore Verbinski ("Pirates of the Caribbean") and Michael Bay (five Bruckheimer productions, including "Pearl Harbor").
"I like commercial directors because the really good ones work at least 200 days a year. They understand how to work a crew. They work with actors who, a lot of times, aren't professionals, and get good performances out them," Bruckheimer says.
Moreover, commercial directors know how to make a film look good, he says.
"I believe it's film, not radio, and I want it to look interesting, different, unique. ... There's such a clutter of movies coming out, so if you see when something's a little different, feels a little different, it might motivate you a little to go see it," he adds. "It's all important in the marketing of the film."
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Jerry Bruckheimer does not laugh.
Handed a "Guide to Determine If You're in a Jerry Bruckheimer Movie" -- a gently mocking list that appeared in the Internet journal McSweeney's ("7. You are a cop or scientist, but could be a model"; "17. Everything that has not yet exploded explodes") -- the producer's face clouds. He peruses the list as if it contained family secrets. Only when he finishes does he suddenly brighten.
"Hey, it's all fun," he says, smiling, sitting at a table in an Atlanta hotel room during the December press tour for his new film, "Glory Road." "As long as they spell my name right, it's fine."
But, of course, sometimes it's not fine. It's not fine being the subject of every movie critic and pop culture blogger's potshots.
Indeed, Bruckheimer's very name is often synonymous with Hollywood movies that contain brash visuals, quick cuts, booming soundtracks and explosive pyrotechnics (lots of pyrotechnics), to the point where reviewers refer to him, the producer -- the guy who assembles and oversees the project -- instead of the director or screenwriter.
"I can't possibly criticize this exciting yet profound film except to say, hey, is Jerry Bruckheimer going soft? Guns? Is that the most creative way he could find to kill people?" wrote a Canadian reviewer of "Bad Company."
"This is ... what most Jerry Bruckheimer-produced movies serve up best: the poetry of destruction," wrote Newsweek's David Ansen of "Pearl Harbor."
Why are the critics so harsh?
"I think the critic is looking for something that's more than entertainment -- that challenges a person, makes them think," says Phil Kloer, pop culture critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Bruckheimer is well known for doing broad, mainstream meat-and-potatoes entertainment. It's not noted for its subtlety or nuance, but millions of people love it."
Indeed, Bruckheimer probably wouldn't get such attention if he weren't also one of the most successful producers in Hollywood. With rare exceptions, his films have been hugely successful, from "Flashdance" and "Beverly Hills Cop" to "Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor" (yes, it made money) and "Pirates of the Caribbean." He's become a one-man TV production house, with nine shows on the air at the beginning of the 2005-06 season and five of them (the three "CSIs," "Without a Trace" and "Cold Case") currently in the top 20.
His name is a brand, one of the biggest brands in Hollywood.
"Like a Spielberg or a Hanks, his name drives box office," Entertainment Weekly noted in naming him to the top of its Power List in 2003, adding that studios emphasize his name in ads as a marketing tool.
But if Bruckheimer is taking marketing surveys to decide on his next project, he says he has a very small sample size: himself.
"I don't know what you like, I don't know what an audience likes; I know what I like," he says. "It's what I try to do."
Star Lucas: 'Jerry's totally in control'
In the past few years, Bruckheimer has balanced action-driven productions with more family-oriented films, such as "Kangaroo Jack" and "Remember the Titans." "Glory Road" falls into the latter camp: It's the story of the 1966 Texas Western basketball team, the first all-black lineup to beat an all-white squad -- Adolph Rupp's Kentucky Wildcats -- for the NCAA title in one of the most significant games in college basketball history. (Read a Sports Illustrated article about Texas Western coach Don Haskins.)
Bruckheimer says he was told the story -- which, not being a fan, he wasn't aware of -- by NBA coach Pat Riley, who was on that losing Kentucky squad. Bruckheimer was attracted to the story's uplifting aspects.
"I always like telling stories that are about individuals that changed things for the better," he says. "And [Texas Western coach] Don Haskins and those seven [African-American] kids changed things for African-Americans for the better, and athletics for the better."
Bruckheimer, as is his habit, oversaw "every decision" of the film. Though there have been directors and actors who have chafed at the producer's hands-on style, star Josh Lucas, who plays Haskins, welcomed it -- to an extent.
"Jerry's totally in control," he says in a separate interview on the press tour. "[Director] Jim [Gartner] fought all sorts of things to make sure his influence was detailed throughout the film ... [but] Jim is very straightforward about what Bruckheimer brings to it -- certain elements of humor, certain things that make the movie more accessible than it might be otherwise."
But a Bruckheimer film is a first-class voyage, he says. "The interesting thing about Jerry is that Jerry is extremely filmmaker-friendly. His whole thing is 'I'm going to give you the money to do it right.' "
Compliments -- and complaints
For Bruckheimer, "Glory Road" brought an additional challenge: Many of the principals, including Haskins, are still alive.
The screening for the Texas Western cadre, he says, "was the most tense screening that we had" -- so he was cheered by Haskins' approval, and even more by the approval of the coach's wife, Mary.
"His wife loved it, which is always the best news because pillow talk will kill you every time," he chuckles. "But Mary loved it, and that's the greatest compliment for us."
The gruff Haskins, known as "the Bear" during his 38-year career as college coach, was an adviser for the film, running a tough practice for the actors and serving as a model for Lucas. Even so, some of the film's history was telescoped: The film says Haskins won the NCAA title in his first year at Texas Western (now University of Texas-El Paso), but it was his fifth. Haskins also expanded an integration program established by his predecessor, instead of creating one himself, though he did fight to start more black players.
But as with many sports movies, the truth is even more unbelievable than the fiction. Haskins is tougher than he's pictured, the team really did deal with episodes of discrimination -- and Texas Western really did win a double-overtime NCAA quarterfinal because a player stepped on the out-of-bounds line as he shot the winning basket.
Five of Bruckheimer's TV series are in the top 20, including No. 1 "CSI."
It's a fine balance, truth and fiction, just as it can be a fine balance between art and commerce. Bruckheimer's TV shows have been praised for their high-quality production values and equally high-quality talent, and critics praise their success; his films have high-quality production values and high-quality talent, and yet, with a few exceptions (such as "Pirates"), are often roasted by critics as formula product.
"I think Bruckheimer is capable of doing a range of stuff, but he has a very populist taste -- sort of like the [taste that formidable] heads of the TV networks have had," says Kloer, comparing Bruckheimer to NBC's late programming whiz Brandon Tartikoff and current CBS head Les Moonves.
Bruckheimer defends his films, noting they reach for both art and financial success and highlighting the vision of directors such as Ridley Scott and "Flashdance's" Adrian Lyne.
"I think a lot of our movies cross over. What hurts them is that they're so successful because we're so into commerce. If they were failures, [critics] would say they were more artistic."
So, does Bruckheimer care about reviews? The popularity of his work says he doesn't. The sting of the McSweeney's piece says he does.
In the end, he shrugs off the criticism. After all, he could create an "independent" division, as most of the big studios have, and set directors loose on low-budget art films. That would likely be the way to Oscars and critical glory, if he so desired.
But, he says, it probably wouldn't work.
"Now the minute [critics] see my name, they go right for me," he says. "I'd have to change my name or do it out of Alaska or something."
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