There's not much about Jerry Bruckheimer that suggests the bravado of his movies or the sizzle of his TV shows. The producer responsible for the mega-action films Armageddon and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl as well as the hypercharged forensic drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is a slight 58-year-old who speaks in a near whisper. Indeed, Bruckheimer is so shy that he insisted Jeffrey Katzenberg, a co-founder of DreamWorks SKG, accompany him on his first date with the woman who would become his second wife. The most macho things about Bruckheimer are that he drives a silver Ferrari and is devoted to ice hockey. He organizes a weekly scrimmage that has attracted such A-list players as Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr. Even so, Bruckheimer calls himself a lousy skater. Gooding jokes that the producer "tries hard for an old guy."
As unassuming as he is, Bruckheimer carries the future of two of the industry's biggest players on his slender shoulders. His four CBS (VIA ) programs, which also include crime dramas Cold Case and Without a Trace, each rank among the top 18 shows and are largely responsible for the Viacom Inc. (VIA )-owned network overtaking NBC in overall ratings in the past two years. A new CSI, based in New York, should air in the fall. Leslie Moonves, chairman of CBS Entertainment, says: "I sometimes think the 'B' in CBS means Bruckheimer." And his films are so crucial to Walt Disney Co. (DIS ), whose studio has had a string of big-budget bombs this year, that it moved up the opening of the sword-swinging King Arthur to July 7 from its original November date. "He can start a whole new streak for us," says Disney studio chief Richard W. Cook.
SWEET DEAL. Bruckheimer, who started out as an advertising executive, is as close as Hollywood has to a sure thing. Since 1983, when he and producer Don Simpson came out with Flashdance, 18 of the 22 films Bruckheimer has produced or co-produced have generated more than $100 million in worldwide box-office receipts. The movies may not be favorites of the critics, but they lure viewers with their slick sheen, frequent explosions, and pulsating soundtracks. Last year, Pirates grossed $654 million in worldwide sales plus $360 million in DVD sales, helping boost earnings at a time when Disney CEO Michael D. Eisner was under attack for the media giant's poor performance.
That's why Disney is eager to extend the producer's five-year deal. And a sweet deal it is: Bruckheimer makes about $5 million for each film, gets 7.5% of the studio's take, and receives some unusual perks -- like a $10 million annual development budget and a sleek Santa Monica (Calif.) office for his 26-person team that features a martini bar and pool table. Few other producers who aren't named Steven Spielberg can command those terms.
And Bruckheimer is negotiating from strength: Disney's other successful partner, Steven P. Jobs's Pixar Animation Studios, has announced it is leaving next year. At the same time, Eisner is locked in tense negotiations over extending the contracts of Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the mercurial founders of Disney's Miramax Film Corp. (DIS ), which made Chicago and other big hits. Bruckheimer says he isn't talking to other studios; indeed, few others would give him the latitude he has now. Cook says "the deal is almost done" -- which in Hollywood-speak means anything could happen.
Disney has blown it with Bruckheimer before. Back in 2000 it dropped CSI at the last minute because of a hefty cost of $2 million an episode. Bruckheimer doesn't hold a grudge; after all, he was free to take the show to CBS, which snapped it up. Since then, the ratings at Disney's ABC (DIS ) have tanked while CSI has dislodged ER to become TV's top-rated drama and has brought in huge syndication revenues. "It was a $1 billion mistake for Disney," says Bruckheimer, who has moved his TV production unit to Warner Bros.
What makes Bruckheimer so successful in film and television is simple, or so he says: "I make what I like to see on the screen. If I was making my movies for critics, I'd be living in some small Hollywood apartment somewhere." Instead, he and his wife, Linda, have homes in Beverly Hills and Malibu and a 110-acre farm in Kentucky. Still, it took the young producer nearly a decade after he moved to Hollywood in 1972, and a chance encounter with Simpson at a screening, to hit the big time. After Flashdance, they produced Beverly Hills Cop, a crime drama that the two turned into a comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Top Gun, the Tom Cruise flick based on an article Bruckheimer read in California magazine about a Navy training facility for ace pilots.
It's not just instinct that has served Bruckheimer so well. He is notoriously finicky about details. Actors in his movie Black Hawk Down were trained by the military, and he hired an ex-U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operative to sniff around the Miami drug scene to make the Bad Boys II script more authentic. Three weeks before Pirates was released, he brought in Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer to redo the soundtrack. "He attends more screenings of films than anyone I have ever seen," says Pirates director Gore Verbinski. "And he learns a little something from each of them that makes that film and the next one that much better."
Bruckheimer will doggedly fight studios for more money or the actor he wants, and he will press his case -- quietly -- with even superstar directors. "I call [Bruckheimer] the great water torturer," says Michael Bay, who has directed five films for him, including Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. "If he wants something, he'll bug you to death until it gets done." Verbinski calls Bruckheimer "the heat shield" because he fended off Disney, which wanted a more typically handsome actor like Matthew McConaughey instead of Johnny Depp to play the lead in Pirates. Depp went on to nab an Oscar nomination, the movie grossed over $1 billion, and two sequels are in the works. That's just one reason why Disney is unlikely to let Jerry Bruckheimer walk away again.
By Ronald Grover in Los Angeles