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Jerry Bruckheimer on Career, ‘Maverick’ Success, and ‘Pirates’ Sequels

The megaproducer has crushed the box office with more original franchises than some studios, from 'Top Gun' to 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' yet, he says of his blockbusters, “I never think they’re going to hit.”

With Kevin Feige, you think Marvel. With Kathleen Kennedy, you think of Star Wars and Jurassic Park. But when you consider Jerry Bruckheimer — who’s ranked as the third-highest-grossing movie producer of all time, his films earning a collective $12 billion — the associations get more spread out.

There is the mammoth Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, of course. But there also are several other franchises like National Treasure, Bad Boys and Beverly Hills Cop, plus many one-off hits such as Crimson Tide, Black Hawk Down, Con Air and Armageddon. And this year, Bruckheimer had perhaps his greatest cinematic accomplishment in his career — the stunning sequel Top Gun: Maverick. And none of that even factors in his sprawling TV empire (including the CSI shows).

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In truth, the franchise that has carried Bruckheimer is his own instincts. He’s hardly ever been handed ideas with a preexisting fan base. He’s instead shown an undeniable ability across five decades to select and shape original ideas into their maximum commercial potential. Are his movies critical favorites? Occasionally. Awards bait? Rarely. But his ratio of hits to misses is extraordinary. The man, 79, quite simply knows what ticket buyers want. “We’re in the transportation business,” Bruckheimer has said many times. “We transport you from one place to another. My job is to take you for a couple hours and make you forget about everything that’s going on at home, going on in the world.”

Yet in interviews, Bruckheimer seems less driven to keep his audience enthralled. His answers tend to be polite and economical; less like flying an F-18 through a narrow canyon and more like operating a Boeing 727 on autopilot. So for this conversation on Zoom, we tried to push the uberproducer, mogul and lifelong hockey fan a bit out of his comfort zone and into, well, not the danger zone, but at least into the candor zone, about the impact of Maverick, the key to his success and the latest on sequels from Bad Boys to Pirates of the Caribbean.

I NEVER THINK THEY’RE GOING TO HIT.
Bruckheimer PHOTOGRAPHED BY PHILIP CHEUNG

In every interview, you seem so calm and polite. What, professionally speaking, pisses you off?

When people misrepresent the truth, that’s a problem. When you catch somebody lying to you, it’s very frustrating.

I guess I’m making a slightly surprised noise just because I would think nobody would try that with somebody in your position.

Unfortunately, you come across it on occasion.

What’s the most annoying note you ever got from a studio?

We get the same note every time: How can we cut time out of the picture? They’re all “too long.” I don’t think I ever got a picture made that was “too short.” Executives see so many movies, and see them over and over again, their butt hurts at a certain point.

That’s interesting because you’re known as a producer with commercial instincts, and we tend to think the ideal commercial run time is two hours or less. But many of your hits have been well over that.

There has to be a feeling of completion, and you need time to build the characters to get that completion. The first thing that gets cut out of a movie when it’s too long are the characterizations. You want to meld characterizations into the plot so they evolve together so you can’t remove one of them — that’s the real hard trick.

What do you find most frustrating about the industry right now?

The good news is that there’s so much content that’s needed between the streamers and studios. The bad news is they always want a marquee name. It makes their lives easier. So if it’s a failure, they can say, “We had Tom Cruise, it’s not our fault.” But it’s hard to lock in certain actors and directors because they’re always so busy. You’re always fighting for the same 15 names.

Who are some actors that are not on that list that you think should be?

I hope a couple of people from Top Gun — Glen Powell and Miles Teller — will break through. They certainly have the talent. They’re exceedingly handsome and gifted. So I hope over the next few years they become the movie stars that we need in our business.

I know every question about another Top Gun sequel gets answered with, “It’s up to Tom,” which is understandable because it is. But what is the very latest from Tom you’ve heard on that matter: What’s his vibe?

He’s in the middle of shooting Mission: Impossible 8, and that’s his focus. Once he finishes, we can have a conversation. But then he goes up in space [for an untitled Universal movie] and something else. So I have no idea.

The sequel was so successful and acclaimed, there’s almost a creative argument to be made against doing another to protect the franchise’s legacy. It seems impossible to top.

What you’re saying is interesting because that was the point of view after the first one. Tom said to me and to Paramount, “If we’re going to make a sequel to Top Gun, we’ve got to hit a bullet with a bullet.” And that’s what he did.

We’ve reported how Tom battled with Paramount to save Maverick for a theatrical release instead of it going to streaming during the pandemic. How involved were you in that?

I wish I could say I got involved. But he was battling that. He took that all on his shoulders. You have to understand he is a prize for Paramount. He’s somebody they’ve worked with for years. They want to keep him happy. So I think it was a smart move on their part — not only to ingratiate themselves with Tom but also to fill their coffers.

Since the movie came out, have any Paramount executives apologized and admitted they were totally wrong to push for a streaming release?

They might have said something to Tom, but I haven’t heard anything.

From left: Tom Cruise, director Joseph Kosinski and Bruckheimer on the set of Top Gun: Maverick. Since the 1986 original, Cruise has gained enormous experience says Bruckheimer. He’s got a laser focus that he’s honed through years in our business.
From left: Tom Cruise, director Joseph Kosinski and Bruckheimer on the set of Top Gun: Maverick. Since the 1986 original, Cruise has gained “enormous experience,” says Bruckheimer. “He’s got a laser focus that he’s honed through years in our business.” Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

One lesson I would love for studios to take from Maverick is that authentic action and on-location filming is generally more compelling than CGI and studio-based production. But do you think anybody is actually learning that? Or are they just chalking up the film’s success to Tom and a strong execution?

I think the creative community will. I think directors, writers, producers will. When they pitch their stories, they’ll say, “This has to be done real — on real locations — and not something that’s CGI.” The studios are always looking for the biggest bang for their buck. If they can make something cheaper, they’ll do it. Filmmakers go with it because it gives them more money to make their movie.

So you think we’ve hit a bit of a tipping point where we might be pivoting slightly back toward valuing the authentic?

I think so. The market is so overwhelmed with all the terrific comic book films that get made. But [audiences] also love real cinematography on real locations.

You mentioned comic book movies, and surely you know that every legacy filmmaker is asked their opinion on Marvel and the amount of Hollywood bandwidth it takes up.

They’re wonderful. They entertain audiences and people love them. You saw that with Spider-Man: No Way Home during the pandemic. They get a very young audience, and the theaters need it. But then Top Gun came in and initially drew an older audience, but eventually it got everybody. You don’t do [$700 million domestic, $1.5 billion global] and not get everybody. Top Gun rejuvenated the theatrical business, here and around the world. Our foreign grosses were bigger than our domestic grosses. It goes to show that when we tell stories about interesting characters with real cameras, real locations, you can captivate the world. It’s a very American movie, but it didn’t matter to audiences overseas because they fell in love with the characters.

Looking back on your career, what film are you the most proud of? And please don’t say, “It’s like choosing between my children, I love them in different ways” — I’m sure that’s true, but there’s always a title that pops into a creative’s mind when asked that question.

It’s about your body of work. You can’t single out one particular movie because it’s the combination — they stack on one another and have built my career. There are so many of them that have been successful, and there are pictures that weren’t terribly successful that I’m extremely proud of.

Bruckheimer left with Armageddon director Michael Bay.
Bruckheimer (left) with Armageddon director Michael Bay. Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

What’s one of those, then?

Veronica Guerin. Cate Blanchett was terrific. It’s a wonderful film about a journalist who gave her life by reporting the truth [that helped] overcome some of the drug addiction in Ireland. I like to tell stories about individuals who got lost in time that should be remembered. Remember the Titans is about those two coaches [who integrated a high school football team]. Black Hawk Down about those 18 men that died — they will never be forgotten because of that movie [about a 1993 mission in Somalia]. We just finished a film for Disney+ about Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to ever swim the English Channel, in 1926. She beat the men’s record by two hours. Totally forgotten in time. You are not going to forget Trudy ever again. Those are pictures I’m extremely proud of.

What’s the most disappointed you ever felt by a movie you thought would be a success?

I never think they’re going to hit. I always hope for the best and expect the worst. Any filmmaker who comes to you and says “I got a huge smash hit,” doesn’t.

But surely you hope.

Always hope. But there are so many famous stories [of flops]. Back in the 1980s, a film had two huge movie stars. It tested through the roof. The studio bought out the points of all the actors. And the movie flopped.

Then what’s the most surprised you ever were by a success?

Black Hawk and Pirates. Black Hawk is a very dark story — we didn’t preview it for that reason — but it became a big success. Pirates was based on a theme park ride. Disney had made Country Bears and Haunted Mansion. Both didn’t reach an audience. So here we come and we’re getting hammered by the press because “How dumb are they? They make two failures and they go for a third one!” Yet it was enormous.

Jerry Bruckheimer, 79, poses for a portrait at the headquarters of his company, “Jerry Bruckheimer Films Inc.” in Santa Monica on November 23, 2022.
Bruckheimer, 79, poses for a portrait at the headquarters of his company, “Jerry Bruckheimer Films Inc.” in Santa Monica on November 23, 2022. PHOTOGRAPHED BY PHILIP CHEUNG

How much faith, if any, do you put in test screenings?

Quite a bit. They tell you a lot, but they can’t predict whether it’s a hit. The test screenings on Maverick had a high score, but it wasn’t through the roof. The lower part of the score was the younger audience, while older people who saw the original were very enthusiastic. Then it came out and just started snowballing, and it hit from ages 8 to 80. I was in Kentucky for a funeral, and this woman comes up to me and said, “I work at this company and we have a contest of who can see Top Gun the most times. I’ve seen it 25.” And a young girl had come up to me and said, “My dad was suicidal and going to end his life. He saw Top Gun. It gave him hope.” You captivate an audience and you can change people’s lives.

You’ve been so financially successful. At this point, does money still mean anything?

I’ve never, ever done it for the money. It’s always about the work and the enjoyment of it. You always want a fair deal, obviously.

Do you think there’s a viable path forward for Bad Boys 4 with Will Smith at this stage?

Absolutely. I mean, Will made a mistake, unfortunately. That’s not who he is. He’s a phenomenal actor and there’s always forgiveness in the world. And hopefully, the audience will forgive him.

Pirates 6 has gone through so many iterations. Why has it been tough to crack?

Oh God, they’re all hard. I think we’re getting very close on that one, too. We have a very good script. We developed two of them — the one with Margot Robbie and one with a younger cast. The Margot Robbie one needs a little more work. The younger cast one is close. Hopefully we’ll get both of them.

But Robbie said in an interview the project wasn’t happening.

It’s alive for me. It’s alive for Disney. I’m sure she was disappointed it didn’t go first — or maybe not because she’s very busy, so it might be a blessing to push this a bit. We believe we’ll get it made. It’s a very strong story.

Bruckheimer with Pirates of the Caribbean’s Johnny Depp right.
Bruckheimer with Pirates of the Caribbean’s Johnny Depp (right). Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

Does the recent trial outcome make Johnny Depp somebody a studio like Disney would put front and center again in a Pirates sequel?

You’d have to ask them. I can’t answer that question. I really don’t know. I would love to have him in the movie. He’s a friend, a terrific actor and it’s unfortunate that personal lives creep into everything we do.

Depp has hinted that if he were to return, the film should have a clear ending for his character. But would you ever kill off Jack Sparrow?

You can’t. We tried to kill him. It didn’t work.

In the wake of George Floyd, there was a lot of criticism of cop shows. Are they tougher to do now or still as relevant?

As long as people are foolish enough to commit crimes, there’ll always be crime shows. People keep committing crimes and somebody’s got to stop them. And so, here we are.

Jerry Bruckheimer with his late co-producer Don Simpson left and Eddie Murphy on the set of Beverly Hills Cop II.
Jerry Bruckheimer with his late co-producer Don Simpson (left) and Eddie Murphy on the set of Beverly Hills Cop II. Courtesy Everett Collection

Is there anything you attribute your longevity in the industry to?

Just putting one foot in front of the other. Never looking back — other than not to make the same mistake over and over. I’m always looking forward to what’s next.

What lesson in Hollywood took you the longest to learn?

I don’t know that there is a lesson. But you have to be committed to what you believe in and push it. Keep pushing that rock up the hill and don’t let anybody deter you. It took five or six years to get Young Woman and the Sea made. It took 35 years to get a sequel made to Top Gun. Maybe I’m inept at what I do. I can’t get them made quicker. But we keep pushing that rock.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.