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David Poland

By David Poland

Bruckheimer & Disney


“Happy 70th birthday, Jerry Bruckheimer. Now fuck off.”

(That would be Disney talking, not me.)

Jerry Bruckheimer’s 70th birthday is tomorrow (Saturday, September 21). He has been on his own at Disney for over 15 years. (His partner, Don Simpson, died January 1996, with a number of projects already in the pipeline.)

There was a lot of heat around Simpson/Bruckheimer and then Bruckheimer on his own in the late 1990s. But the planets shifted immeasurably for Bruckheimer in 2000… or a couple years earlier, if you will, when Disney decided not to extend their successful movie relationship with Bruckheimer when Jerry got serious about being a TV producer. The company, then led by Michael Eisner (remarkably out of the CEO job only 8 years now), decided to let Bruckheimer take his TV efforts elsewhere. This turned out to be one of the worst decisions in the history of Disney or, really, in the history of Hollywood. “CSI” (and “CSI”-named spinoffs) = 650 highly-rated episodes and still going… not only a huge revenue producer, but a lost opportunity for the then-struggling ABC TV network. Also, another 350 episodes of Emmy-dominator “The Amazing Race,” not to mention another 350+ episodes spread over a number of hit shows. Want to linger in Netflix’s success? Jerry Bruckheimer’s television company has delivered, on average, over 100 hours of successful television every year for the last 13 years and change. Netflix’s entire line-up of new shows is around 40 hours a year.

Oh yeah… let’s get back to the business Bruckheimer was doing with Disney… movie business. Pirates. 2003. Then 3 more. $3.7 billion in theatrical. God knows what in ancillaries. National Treasure (conceived by Oren Aviv) was good for another $800 million in theatrical.

Yes, there have been flops. A few very expensive ones. But he has made only 4 movies out of 23 since 2000 that have grossed under $100m worldwide.

And as usual, in studio politics, it isn’t the flops that kill… it’s the philosophy.

When Iger took over from Eisner in 2005, his first take on the movie business was to get behind Dick Cook and to make The Disney Brand the #1 priority. That lasted until September 2009, when Iger pulled the trigger on Iger’s Disney 2.0, which would be a distribution and marketing company led by TV guy Rich Ross. That first year of clearing out the pipeline had some lows and some big highs, including the Cook-generated Alice in Wonderland, the second $1b+ grosser in the history of the company and the car wrecks Prince of Persia (which did over $300m worldwide) and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which was taken on by Ross’ outsider marketing chief MT Carney as the first movie for whose marketing she would be completely responsible. It bombed. And both of those bombs were produced by Bruckheimer.

The philosophy of Iger’s Disney 2.0 was to bring in companies that were self-funded. Disney would only make/fund a few small Disney Channel-level movies and established Disney franchise films – including both Disney and Pixar animation – in-house… except for Bruckheimer. The new philosophy started, as Cook was being shown the door, with the purchase of Marvel. When Marvel was purchased they came to Disney with their own funding. Honestly, I have no idea how that may have been adjusted since. Disney also did a distribution & marketing deal with DreamWorks, their production funding coming from Reliance. But DreamWorks wouldn’t deliver their first film to Disney until 2011.

Insiders around Bruckheimer said at the time that Disney was pressuring Bruckheimer to self-fund as well. 2011’s terrible Pirates sequel was notably only the second of the franchise to generate more than a billion dollars at the box office. So Bruckheimer, even with the bombs, had an ace in his sleeve. So they tip-toed around him. No IPO for him. (A bad economy didn’t help the prospects for him to make that choice.)

The problem was, Disney didn’t have a very strong marketing department at that time and that was supposed to be its strength. So the studio was forced by powerful content providers like Bruckheimer and DreamWorks to hire, basically, separate teams to oversee their movies. This was expensive and not a workable ongoing strategy.

Rich Ross (and Iger 2.0) was fired in April 2012, shortly after the biggest loser in Disney history and just before the biggest winner in Disney history. In many ways, the oncoming success of Avengers signed Ross’ (business) death warrant. Ross was having a lot of problems connecting to non-Disney Hollywood anyway. But a big part of that was the philosophy of putting the studio out of the non-Disney moviemaking business. He was never really a buyer.

Look at 2012. $1.5b for Disney-owned Marvel’s Avengers. Brave and Wreck-It-Ralph combined… $1 billion worldwide. 10 other releases… about $1b worldwide combined. And that includes John Carter‘s $243m, which was in many way a Pixar-connected project.

So the template of Iger’s Disney 3.0 was coming together. Rich Ross out. Charming industry insider Alan Horn in (less than a month after Avengers launched).

Three months later, the defining choice of Iger’s Disney 3.0. Disney would now pay for all of their movies… and they would all be franchise movies. Disney added the seeming ultimate franchise play by buying Lucasfilm with Kathy Kennedy running that Star Wars show.

And by the way… they still have Disney Earth and the Muppets in-house.

So look at the schedule for the next year… three more DreamWorks movies in the next 6 months and a fourth – in theory – next summer.

Two films in the same month next summer from The Potential Next Bruckheimer-ish Joe Roth… one of which is a Disney franchise character (Maleficent).

And that’s it for movies not being made in-house (not counting Maleficent). Five total. (And the one for Roth is, in the great Bruckheimer tradition, a little something on the side after agreeing to produce two huge and expensive films for the studio.) And only a marketing and distribution spend on the four DreamWorks movies.

Three Marvel movies, three animated movies, two Disney franchises in Maleficent and Saving Mr. Banks. A Disney Earth film. And a new Muppets movie.

The highest budget on the non-in-house titles is probably about $50 million… except for Need For Speed, the budget on which I have no idea.

How many movies being released in the next year with budgets over $150m, being made and paid for in-house? I count four or five.


But this was a piece about Bruckheimer’s deal not being renewed, right?

Well… like I said before… not IPOing or outside funding. Not paying for movies out of his pocket. And nothing much there to buy with a 70-year-old master of the universe.

All of a sudden, Disney is fat with franchises, between Marvel and Star Wars and Pixar and even Disney animation… the studio is looking, after planning on getting out of the business of funding all but a couple bigger movies a year, at the likelihood of at least a few coming years with three or more $200 million+ movies every year as Marvel, Pixar, and LucasFilm all make very expensive films, pretty much every time out. Any year with one Marvel, one Lucasfilm, and one Pixar means a commitment of over $1 billion to release three films.

With the price tag on Pirates films now in the $300 million range, plus backend, a billion dollar gross is still profitable… but not nearly as profitable as a movie without Johnny Depp and Jerry Bruckheimer getting paid, grossing a billion.

No one has announced that Pirates 5 is dead. But until Disney gets back to licking one 70-year-old’s behind, you can bet it’s dead. Big money… but neither JB or JD NEEDS the money. And people & corporations don’t work together a lot right after a break-up.

Meanwhile, Bob Iger just extended his tenure into 2016… which is plenty of time in which to conceive of Iger’s Disney 4.0. You’ll know it’s coming if you hear about Iger snuggling up to Bruckheimer again. How might it happen? Bad number for Guardians of the Galaxy would do it. A $500m worldwide gross for the first new Star Wars movie. Pixar’s first theatrical bomb.


Meanwhile happy birthday to Jerry Bruckheimer. I bet he’s out there on his hockey rink skating around like a 50-year-old. Good on him.

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28 Responses to “Bruckheimer & Disney”

  1. The Pope says:

    I suppose if any Master of the Universe works long enough, the curtain falls on them also. Wait a few years and watch it happen to Spielberg and Lucas, and Bob and Harvey… and Christopher Nolan and Quentin, and…. because of gravity, everyone will follow.

  2. PcChongor says:

    It seems strange that both a still-working Manoel de Oliveira and a now-jobless Bruckheimer can co-exist in the same cinematic universe. Just goes to show that not EVERYTHING is as hopeless and bleak as Soderbergh makes it out to be.

  3. Ray Pride says:

    MDO a spry 104 and JB a mere 70…

  4. PcChongor says:

    How’s this as cinematic food for thought:

    MDO’s first film came out the same year as “Bambi,” “Cat People,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and yes, “Casablanca.”

  5. Matthew says:

    Hi there, just goes to show that not everything is as hopeless and bleak as Soderbergh makes it out to be or not.

  6. Martin S says:

    Paramount seems the logical choice for Bruck.

    If Tsujihara really wants to make something of the WB IP, Bruckheimer is the guy.

    I’d bring him in now to oversee Batman/Superman and Justice League before they implode.

  7. How Saving Mr Banks is a Disney frachise?

  8. Tom says:

    Disney used to have the best marketing department in the industry. No one else was even close. CMO’s of major brands such as P&G, Budweiser, Coke… would visit the studio to hear about the Disney way. Not anymore.

    After MT Carney, the department has become of shell of its former self. Disney has yet to fix the problem and no progress looks likely. Most of the senior people are still MT Carney’s hires. Disney marketing will remain the laughing stock of the industry as long as that second and third layer of leadership (MT’s People) remain.

  9. Betsy Ross says:

    “[Jerry Bruckheimer] has made only 4 movies out of 23 since 2000 that have grossed under $100m worldwide.”

    Along with the successful TV shows that makes for a pretty fantastic career. Happy Birthday Jerry! Can’t wait to see what you have next in store for us!

  10. Chucky says:

    @Martin S: Jerry Bruckeimer wants nothing to do with comic book movies — lots of money but no prestige. Also, Paramount dumped Simpson/Bruckheimer Productions 20 years ago.

  11. cadavra says:

    Gonzalo, BANKS isn’t a franchise in the traditional sense. But it does have two long-popular elements: MARY POPPINS and Uncle Walt himself. (AFAIK, this is the first time he’s ever been portrayed in a feature film.) In an off-beat way, this could even be considered a kind of prequel to POPPINS, and I expect they’ll make a swell double-bill down the road. So yes, while it’s not a 2 or a 3, it does have a built-in gotta-see to boomers, who’ll no doubt bring their grandkids.

  12. LexG says:


    Bruckheimer has always been and will always be a god to me, but the movies themselves have never been QUITE the same since Simpson died (unless a Scott or Bay was at the helm), and they definitely weren’t the same after he started going for that lacquered orange light-PG-13 family-adventure movie aesthetic. Oddly, I’d argue LONE RANGER was one of the strongest Bruckheimer productions since the heyday, but at this point you can’t really do so without coming off as some contrarian dweeb.

  13. movielocke says:

    After Walt died, Disney theatrical began following a path that is eerily similar to the path followed by Iger, minus the franchise moves. It was all situated around big tentpoles and protecting the brand. and the Brand died and the tentpoles faltered. Eisner came in and resurrected the brand by diversifying in smart ways. IMO the Disney brand is dying again for the same reason, too narrow a focus on too limited a field. Make movies like Heavyweights or Blank Check, as Disney used to, and you’ll have a much stronger brand than one that relies on a homerun performance once a year from an animated tentpole.

  14. cadavra says:

    Lex, you’d be surprised how many people did like LONE RANGER. Of course, most of them are Old People, but still…

  15. Lurker says:

    It is certainly debatable how good Prince of Persia, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Pirates 4 and Lone Ranger were, but the failure of them to perform to expectations is not a filmmaking problem. The problem is a marketing and distribution one. Had Disney’s marketing team done their job, none of those films would be labeled the disappointments they are today. Jerry is taking the heat for the failings at the studio. (Yes P4 did over $1B, but it was all international money. It failed domestic).

    Disney’s live action marketing team has survived because they have been riding the coattails of success on the Marvel side. A nutless monkey could open a Marvel movie. Some day that free ride will coming to an end and it will be clear how bad the organization really is.

  16. Sam says:

    I don’t buy that at all. Yeah, marketing can cover for a bad movie to a point and (more often) let down a good movie. But if any of those four movies had been any good, they’d have caught on better, and word of mouth would have brought them home.

    Movie history is rife with examples of poorly-marketed movies that overcame through word of mouth, and well-marketed movies that did well early and crashed and burned later. Marketing is a factor, but not the only factor.

  17. hcat says:

    I do agree with Lurker though that he is taking the heat, of course when a movie losses as much as Lone Ranger someone’s head has to role and his was the only one left. Disney feels like they don’t need him anymore but are more than happy to take his Remember the Titans and Pirates templates and reuse them time and time and time again.

    And Movielocke I am curious, which tentpoles were you talking about post Walt, from what I remember Disney was in trouble not because they put their eggs in the tentpole basket but kept churning out sub-AIP style comedies like the North Avenue Irregulars and Herbie Goes to Guam.

  18. storymark says:

    “Wait a few years and watch it happen to Spielberg and Lucas”

    Didn’t Lucas just retire? How much more can that curtain go down?

  19. christian says:

    “The problem is a marketing and distribution one. ”

    No, a bunch of ads still can’t can’t make people see things they don’t wanna. But don’t let the ad men who have ruined the industry with their brand franchise buzz speak today know that.

  20. Bulldog68 says:

    Ditto what Christian said. Lone Ranger was a prime example of what I thought was a well marketed movie. They checked all the boxes, assembled all the pre tested composite pieces for success, followed the PotC model to a tee, had their star, director, an actually fantastic second trailer that brought me over the hump, but no matter how much you try the saturation strategy and beating the audience to death with it, if they don’t want it, they don’t want it.

    It seems that now every Disney movie is a sequel, and I don’t mean the obvious sequels, I mean like Oz being a sorta sequel of Alice in Wonderland, and Lone Ranger being a sorta sequel of PotC. They’re basically on rinse and repeat. But the marketing and distribution guys do their jobs at Disney better than most. Not everyone likes lemonade.

  21. Jermsguy says:

    I liked Lone Ranger more than Pirates 4.

    I always thought Hollywood Pictures was their studio for singles and doubles, the kind where they’d mix up Jerry’s summer doubles (Crimson Tide, The Rock) with spring and fall singles ensemble flicks (Passed Away, Blame it on the Bellboy, etc.) or stars who aren’t really box-office draws but maybe this time it’ll work (John Cusack in Money for Nothing, Demi Moore in GI Jane, etc.)

    I didn’t realize the acquisition of DreamWorks meant the death of Touchstone.

  22. RRA says:

    Thanks Mr. Poland for at least putting some perspective behind Disney’s decision, for better or worse.

    Mr. Bruckheimer, for his whole career, overall he’s proven that he’s an ATM with legs. He knows how to make money. I’m just surprised that Disney cut loose such a war horse like this.

    I really hope LONE RANGER’s failure wasn’t what killed this relationship because that’s very knee jerk on Disney’s part. I’m reminded of Robinov at WB letting his boy Zack Snyder direct MOS, even though Snyder post-300 films had been flops. Sure I didn’t like MOS, but that gamble paid off. Nobody can dispute that. Superman is now a viable film franchise again and who knows, the Marvel-clone DCU has now begun.

  23. hcat says:

    ‘I didn’t realize the acquisition of DreamWorks meant the death of Touchstone.’

    Touchstone died with the one two punch of Pirates success and The Alamo’s failure. Once Disney realized they could get all four quadrents on the Disney label with a PG-13 rating there was no need for Touchstone to exist anymore, and they could produce these blockbusters that would promote the Disney brand in a way that Touchstone did not.

    And it wasn’t just Hollywood pictures that grabbed recognizable b-listers, for most of its existance Touchstone relied on recognizable TV stars (Hanks, Shelly Long, Tom Selleck, Robin Williams) or A-listers who had fallen on harder times (Dreyfus, Midler). Disney never used to be one to pay for talent, which is odd since it was the talent that took them off this cliff, wasn’t Depp the engine that drove the project? Bruckheimer was mostly just along for the ride.

  24. Etguild2 says:

    Disney does not generally release PG-13 films under their own label, unless they are Dreamworks productions (formerly Touchstone or Miramax). “John Carter” was an exception, but that can be seen as a favor for Pixar.

    “Oblivion” was owned by Disney, and they released the rights to Universal after telling Kosinski that they could not release a PG-13 cut.

  25. hcat says:

    Thought the Narnias and National Treasure might be PG-13 but you are right, looks like just Ranger, Persia, Carter and Pirates the last few years.

    But I think the point still stands that Touchstone was created so they could bring people into the theater without them outright dismissing it as a kids movie since it had the Disney name (and it would allow them to make R rated films), but as tastes changed and people were willing to trust Disney to deliver epic action films there was no need to have Touchstone anymore.

    The thing that strikes me odd about this is that I get why he was let go from Paramount after all his success, they did not want to be in the $60 million budget business, but Disney is going to continue with the same big investment/big reward path that Bruckheimer started them on, is there just no longer room at the table with the huge amounts going to Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm?

  26. David Poland says:

    Sony’s marketing department used to have a toy they mocked up called The Wheel of Blame, which would spin between the half dozen or so reasons movies fail. Bad title, bad marketing, bad movie, bad date, etc…

    There is no single answer to why each movie that fails has done so. As noted in the Sony piece earlier this week (9/24), I blame marketing only for opening weekends. They do not control word of mouth, so multiples of opening are not a marketing responsibility (very often).

    And sometimes, great marketing still leads nowhere. And sometimes shit marketing leads to a hit.

    Do I think Bruckheimer was infallible at Disney? Not even close. But do I feel some of the movies could have opened a lot better… even though they might still have ended up losing money? Yes.

    It’s also worth noting that Bruckheimer hired on his own marketing team to push out Pirates 4 and other films as the faith in Ms Carney fell away. But having two camps selling your film through one distributor is never really a good sign, even when it works.

  27. David Poland says:

    Also, the notion that Simpson/Bruckheimer got thrown off the Paramount lot is a bit out of context.

    It wasn’t just Days of Thunder. Simpson’s nature as a lightening rod – drugs, harassment, etc – combined with Days of Thunder meant a problem studio didn’t want to keep paying a fortune to keep the duo around. And that was what would have been necessary, by contract.

    Paramount preferred the Jaffe, Lansing path. Movies like Fatal Attraction and The Accused were making good money without the massive risk of S/B tentpoles. And Ghost was a massive hit at Paramount just after Days of Thunder and cost almost nothing in comparison.

  28. hcat says:

    Unless I remember incorrectly, Days of Thunder was the only massive risk they took, Top Gun and the Cops were all made for a price, under $20 million or so. Isn’t that the reason Paramount was sold, the rapid rise in the cost of production and marketing in the late 80’s early 90’s simply made the risk too great?

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