Jerry Bruckheimer's Disney Future in Question As Moguls Defend His 'Lone Ranger'

The Lone Ranger Hammer on Horse - H 2013
Disney Enterprises, Inc.

The Lone Ranger Hammer on Horse - H 2013

The producer's rich "Pirates 5" deal will almost certainly be renegotiated while Les Moonves, Ron Meyer and Jeffrey Katzenberg praise the "Rock of Gibraltar of Hollywood" after a pricey flop.

Amid continuing reverberations from the mega-failure of The Lone Ranger, it appears clear that the movie has damaged producer Jerry Bruckheimer's long and often highly successful relationship with Disney and will lead at minimum to a renegotiation of his rich deal for a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean, if not his eventual exit from the studio.

But in a testament to Bruckheimer's long and extraordinary career -- which has included hits from Flashdance to Beverly Hills Cop to the National Treasure series, not to mention television shows such as The Amazing Race and the CSI franchise -- some of the industry’s leading figures, including CBS Corp. CEO Les Moonves and director Michael Bay, are coming to the producer’s defense.

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At the heart of the discussion is the question of how much responsibility a producer bears when a film like Lone Ranger -- which cost more than $250 million to make and opened to a grim $48.9 million domestic during the long holiday weekend -- goes over budget and all but out of control. Disney sources say Bruckheimer had committed to hold the line on director Gore Verbinski’s spending despite the filmmaker’s reputation for profligacy. But other industry observers say the studio should never have expected Bruckheimer to rein in the director, who had collaborated with him and star Johnny Depp on four Pirates of the Caribbean movies that grossed a combined $3.7 billion at the box office.

“Film directors are very headstrong, and it’s hard,” says Bay, who collaborated with Bruckheimer on two Bad Boys movies and Pearl Harbor, among many others. “Trust me, as a producer, there are things [you] just can’t control. A director will take it and you’ve kind of got to let ‘em go. It’s their movie.”

One of Bruckheimer's reps concurs.

“I don’t know that Jerry Bruckheimer ever promised, per se, to 'control’ Gore Verbinski,” says David O’Connor of CAA. “I don’t know how anybody could promise to control a movie. … Part of the whole visual pitch [of Lone Ranger] was the scope and vistas and incredible beauty of the West. There’s a lot -- when you’re using real locations like that -- that is out of control.”

Bruckheimer and Verbinski declined to comment, as did Disney.

A number of top industry executives who praised Bruckheimer to The Hollywood Reporter were responding in part to recent slams elsewhere, such as one in The New York Times on July 7 that read: “Mr. Bruckheimer’s track record of late has been dismal, with duds including Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The former film grossed $335 million worldwide, while the latter pulled in $215 million. Given their sizable budgets, both films were disappointments.

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Moonves, just departing for the Allen & Co. gathering in Sun Valley, Idaho, says Bruckheimer “has clearly been one of the most successful producers in the history of television.” Referring to Bruckheimer-produced hit series, he adds, “A few years back he had seven shows on our air. He’s one of my go-to guys. He always will be.” Moonves notes that Bruckheimer is producing Hostages for CBS, one of the network’s big bets for the fall. “Some of the shows he produced were expensive ones, but there was never an issue creatively or financially,” Moonves says.

“Jerry Bruckheimer is the Rock of Gibraltar of Hollywood,” says DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has known Bruckheimer for more than 30 years. “To suggest that one movie, no matter how big a miss it might be, in any way undermines his value or his career is insane. This is a guy who bats .850 in a world where .350 makes you an All-Star.” Universal's Ron Meyer, too, praises Bruckheimer’s track record, adding, “They took a big swing and they missed. I don’t know any one of us that hasn’t.”

In an important way, the outsized failure of Lone Ranger is having minimal impact as Wall Street analysts have shrugged off the loss despite predictions that a write-off of up to $190 million is coming. Nonetheless, Disney executives are deeply unhappy with the loss and the embarrassment. Sources say the studio battled with Verbinski over length and content and the director lost his final-cut privileges early on due to budget overages. But in practical terms, Disney was not in a position to take control of the picture, potentially alienating a star as important as Depp.

Disney film studio chief Alan Horn, who joined the studio when the film was already underway, is known for his distaste for graphic violence and potentially offensive language -- an inclination perfectly suited to Disney’s culture. Anticipating that the studio would seek cuts, an insider says Verbinski put some dark and violent material in the film -- such as a scene depicting a character eating a human heart -- fully expecting to cut them back to placate executives. Though the heart-devouring scene was trimmed, Disney pushed further.

The studio had contractual power to effect some changes through language in the filmmaker’s contract giving the studio the right to eliminate material inconsistent with the company’s image. As the film moved closer to release, however, Verbinski is said to have threatened to walk off the project if additional changes were made.

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Nonetheless, a source involved in the project says Verbinski was more collaborative than usual. From the start, this person says, the director assured the studio that he wanted to control the budget to rebut his reputation for spending. But with challenges such as poor weather -- as well as Verbinski’s insistence on realizing his vision -- he obviously failed.

In the aftermath, Verbinski seems likely to suffer the most fallout of all the key players. But still, it appears that Bruckheimer faces a budget renegotiation on the planned Pirates of the Caribbean 5. There is still no approved script for the film, tentatively set for 2015, though Depp and Bruckheimer are set to return for directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg.

Bruckheimer’s deal at Disney expires in spring 2014. It seems probable that the producer will test the waters at other studios, especially with Disney’s pipeline packed with tentpole movies from Marvel, Lucasfilm and other suppliers. Meanwhile, Bruckheimer is working on Pirates and a found-footage genre film, Beware the Night, for Screen Gems; the latter film is set for release in January 2015. Another potential project is a second Bad Boys sequel at Sony Pictures. Bruckheimer also has a reality series, Marshall Law, in production for TNT.

In an interview with THR just before Lone Ranger opened, Horn declined to comment on Bruckheimer's future at the studio, adding, “He’s a very talented fellow, but every picture needs to justify its green light in this marketplace on its merits. We’ll pick 'em one at a time."

Twitter: @KimMasters