This Pearl Harbor Looks Like a Victory

Jerry Bruckheimer's war flick is generating a powerful buzz

Jerry Bruckheimer, looking every inch the Hollywood producer in his trademark head-to-toe black outfit and close-cropped beard, breezes into the ultra-sleek Santa Monica (Calif.) offices of Michael Bay, the director of Bruckheimer's film, Pearl Harbor. Striding briskly down a hallway, he's quickly joined by assistants, each with a problem in search of a solution. A ticket for Romania has been booked so Bruckheimer can check in on the filming of Black Hawk Down, a military action film Ridley Scott is directing. From a nearby office, Bay jumps out with good news. Hans Zimmer, the Oscar-winning composer, has had a breakthrough on writing the musical score for Pearl Harbor, set to open May 25. "We're good," says Bay, flashing the thumbs-up sign.

In fact, things are very good for Bruckheimer, Hollywood's current top gun. Two of his last three films, Remember the Titans and Gone in 60 Seconds, grossed more than $100 million at the box office, marking the fifth and sixth times a Bruckheimer film has crossed that threshold since 1996. His TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is a surprise hit on CBS. And the buzz on Pearl Harbor is intense, with insiders predicting the wartime epic's box office could easily hit $200 million.

That makes Pearl Harbor the film to beat in a summer already stocked with such big-budget films as Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and director Tim Burton's remake of the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. For a Hollywood that won't feel the pinch of a likely strike by its writers and actors until next year, Pearl Harbor could further boost a box office that's already 14% above last year. It even has other studios steering clear to avoid the movie's launch on Memorial Day weekend. No major rival is expected until mid-June, with the heavily hyped Tomb Raider.

Bruckheimer's struggle with the Walt Disney Co. over Pearl Harbor is already the stuff of Hollywood legend. As known for his free-spending ways as Disney is famous for its fiscal tightness, Bruckheimer, along with Bay, fought Disney's Touchstone studio for months over Pearl Harbor's budget. The studio forced Bruckheimer to slash his initial special-effects laden budget by 25%, to $135 million. To get there, Bruckheimer and Bay persuaded hotshot actors Ben Affleck and Cuba Gooding Jr. to slash their $10 million fees and work for $250,000 and a piece of any profits later. Some scenes were filmed at the Mexico water tank used for Titanic, saving on expensive ocean shots. Bruckheimer and Bay each gave up $5 million salaries in return for a cut of profits and agreed to cover any cost overruns.

CRACKDOWN. Sure enough, Pearl Harbor has all the elements of a Bruckheimer movie--hot stars, slam-bang action, and lots of explosions. But after spending nearly $190 million to make Armageddon and seeing its margins squeezed, Disney has been cracking down on Bruckheimer's freedom. Last year, it decided to make the Denzel Washington football film, Remember the Titans, only if Bruckheimer would scale back costs and reduce the violence. And it pulled the plug altogether on Black Hawk Down, says Disney studio chief Peter Schneider, because of fears the film would cost as much as $115 million. Joe Roth, former Disney studio chief, picked up the helicopter movie for his new Revolution Studios. The budget now? $85 million.

It isn't often that one of Hollywood's superstar producers gets one of his films bounced. But Bruckheimer's career has been marked with both huge hits and costly overruns. His 14-year partnership with fast-living Don Simpson, which created such megahits as Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun, reached its roughest patch with the 1990 car-racing movie Days of Thunder. The film, starring Tom Cruise, blasted past its $60 million budget and put the two on the outs with Paramount Pictures. The next year, the duo, with their matching black Ferraris, moved to Disney but made few films there before Simpson died of a drug overdose in 1996.

Since Simpson's death, Bruckheimer has expanded his repertoire by making smaller films as well. Disney made a tidy profit on his movie Coyote Ugly, a movie about barmaids made for $45 million. Bruckheimer is now in production on four films, including a modest-budget buddy comedy starring Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins as FBI agents.

But the hit-in-waiting is Pearl Harbor. The movie came in a scant $210,000 over budget, says Bay. And after all the money hassles, Bruckheimer says he won the biggest battle of all by keeping in the final scene, in which American fighter Jimmy Doolittle retaliates by bombing Tokyo. "This film couldn't end with a downer, like Titanic did," says Bruckheimer. "America had to win this one. People needed to walk out happy." Spoken like a true producer.

By Ronald Grover in Santa Monica, Calif.

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