From Cops To Pirates: Inside Jerry Bruckheimer’s Blockbuster Career

September 24, 2014

There are only a handful of producers in Hollywood who utterly dominate their field, whether they are box office champions or MVPs of television ratings. Jerry Bruckheimer is both. He has been directly involved with multiple hits on both large and small screens, and indirectly his sphere of influence has reached almost every corner of the industry.

Jerry Bruckheimer, a life-long film and photography buff, first started working in advertising in Detroit and New York, where commercials he produced picked up several awards. In the 1970s he moved from advertising to feature films, and after his first few productions paired up with director Paul Schrader, the screenwriter of successes like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Their collaboration on Cat People and the Richard Gere-starring American Gigolo brought Bruckheimer his first serious attention.

Bruckheimer then found his perfect partner in Don Simpson. Simpson, known as “Mr. Inside” for his industry schmoozing, was an ideal counterpart to Bruckheimer, who with his eye for marketable filmmaking earned the moniker “Mr. Outside.” Together, the two found they had a knack for blockbuster entertainment, both outside and in.

Their first hit together was 1983’s Flashdance, which cleaned up the box office despite its R-rating. In fact R-ratings, usually a detriment to studio executives looking to make a lot of money, seemed to be no obstacle for the duo. Their next project, Beverly Hills Cop, was a cinematic juggernaut, topping the box office for fourteen straight weeks and becoming the biggest domestic hit of 1984, a year that included movies like The Terminator, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Ghostbusters. Proving that sex and violence were a plus and not a negative for Hollywood blockbusters, Beverly Hills Cop remained the highest-grossing R-rated film ever for the next two decades.

Bruckheimer found a kindred spirit in director Tony Scott and with Simpson they took their ideology one step further by building movies around a macho action atmosphere, downplaying the comedy of Eddie Murphy’s cop movie and focusing on explosions and beautiful women and a general coolness. Tony Scott’s Top Gun and Days of Thunder proved this macho vibe could and would make a lot of money for everyone involved, including their star, Tom Cruise.

After 1990, Bruckheimer stayed under the radar for a little while, before returning to big screens with a vengeance. In 1995, Bruckheimer released Crimson Tide and the adrenaline-fueled school drama Dangerous Minds. That same year Bruckheimer introduced the world to Michael Bay, a director who epitomized Bruckheimer’s loud, testosterone-injected sense of style. Michael Bay’s feature debut Bad Boys was a smash hit followed by the go-for-broke action popcorn-pleasers The Rock and Armageddon, with similarly directed knockouts Con Air and Enemy of the State drawing audiences in droves. Don Simpson passed away before his time, leaving Bruckheimer to produce on his own, though he had more than enough momentum to carry him into the next millennium.

The 2000s started with Bruckheimer experimenting with his macho philosophy, releasing the football drama Remember the Titans and Coyote Ugly, a movie that downplayed the violence and upped the sexy women quotient. In 2001, he channeled his machismo into two very different types of war movies, Michael Bay’s romance-hued Pearl Harbor and Ridley Scott’s gritty Black Hawk Down.

Bruckheimer also launched his bid to become the king of television in the twenty-first century. In 2000, he produced his second scripted TV show to that point, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The crime drama took a different view of violence, focusing on the creepy gore of forensic science and psychopathic murderers. The format proved incredibly lucrative, spawning countless imitators and descendants still dominating the airwaves today. Many of the most successful of these were also produced by Bruckheimer, including Without a Trace, Cold Case, and two CSI spinoffs. Like many of his movies, these shows relied more on a sense of continuity and cookie-cutter plots rather than push-the-envelope storytelling. Audiences responded overwhelmingly to Bruckheimer’s philosophy, with several of his shows topping the Nielsen ratings for most of the decade.

One of those smash hits included The Amazing Race, one of only two Bruckheimer-produced reality series. Like his forays in other media and genres, Bruckheimer proved incredibly deft at giving the people what they want. Premiering in 2001, adventure-themed The Amazing Race is still one of the most popular reality series on television, with audiences and critics alike. In the twelve years the Primetime Emmy has been awarded for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, Amazing Race has won an astounding ten times. While it’s been several years since Bruckheimer released a new television megahit, CSI and The Amazing Race are still going strong.

In 2003, Bruckheimer brought moviegoers a biopic, a sequel, and two films aimed at slightly younger audiences: Kangaroo Jack, which flopped, and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, which birthed one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises of all time. Pirates reinvigorated Johnny Depp’s career, solidified Orlando Bloom as a pretty boy movie star, and most importantly, made adventure films (and pirates) cool again.

Pirates of the Caribbean also showed that Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer were capable of epic, heart-pounding cinema. Bruckheimer tried to replicate that bombastic magic in several of his next films, some more successful than others: National Treasure, Prince of Persia, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and The Lone Ranger.

In between, Bruckheimer managed hits in other genres, including swords-and-sandals epic King Arthur, basketball drama Glory Road, chick-flick Confessions of a Shopaholic, CGI-guinea-pig-starring kids movie G-Force, and his last of six collaborations with Tony Scott, 2006’s Déjà Vu.

At 73, Jerry Bruckheimer shows no signs of slowing down. No doubt his future projects will show his same flair for pleasing crowds, big or really big. He’s also not afraid to look to his past for material—several of his slated upcoming productions are sequels to previous hits. Top Gun 2, Beverly Hills Cop 4, Bad Boys 3, and a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie are all in different levels of pre-production. He’s also looking to TV again, this time cable giant HBO. With Michael Bay, Bruckheimer is producing Cocaine Cowboys, based on the documentary of the same name focusing on the early days of the Miami cocaine drug trade. While it’s too early to tell if it will be yet another massive success under his belt, it’s safe to say the final product will be hip, macho, and a hell of a lot of fun to indulge in. Jerry Bruckheimer wouldn’t have it any other way.

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