An audience with Jerry Bruckheimer, king of the blockbuster

The producer of Top Gun and the Pirates Of The Caribbean films doesn't do failure. But can he persuade UK audiences to get behind his Johnny Depp-starring US flop The Lone Ranger?

When Jerry Bruckheimer grants you an interview, he gives you 15 minutes max. I'm assured there will be no dilly-dallying. The man, after all, knows a thing or two about time management. Besides, he's not here to indulge me: he's here to sell, every inch the businessman (and indeed a business, man).

Bruckheimer burst into Hollywood in the early 80s, producing (alongside Don Simpson) Flashdance, Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop. The 90s saw a move into big-budget action – Armageddon, The Rock, Con Air – while today, thanks to a Disney deal, he's responsible for more family-oriented juggernauts: The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Prince Of Persia weren't enormous successes; the four Pirates Of The Caribbean films were.

He's humouring me briefly in a hotel to talk The Lone Ranger, which reunites the Pirates mob (Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski) to reboot your granddad's favourite gunslinger. It's an immodest, wonky affair, though not without eccentric charm, and there's good fun to be had if you don't get haemorrhoids from sitting through its 149 minutes. But it was hardly crying out to be made, and it duly tanked in the States. Hence the cast and crew are now zipping around the globe, bringing horses to premieres and enduring the media in the hope that they can recoup their outlay from the international market.

It's easy to see Bruckheimer as Hollywood's Simon Cowell, churning out hollow razzle-dazzle for the multiplex masses, most of it based on pre-existing properties. Considering its intended demographic, though, The Lone Ranger is an odd choice of brand to trade on.

"Well, the movie has to stand on its own," says Bruckheimer as our clock starts ticking. "It's got to be engaging, and we think we have the ingredients to appeal to an audience, with Johnny and the action and humour."

Bruckheimer has media-trained himself to perfection. He will not fold under questioning. Our interview is a political dance in which I find myself, like a sort of rubbish Jeremy Paxman, working various interpretations of the same questions in attempts to elicit spontaneity. Talk turns to sequels: Bruckheimer has Pirates 5, Bad Boys 3 and National Treasure 3 on his horizon, and before The Lone Ranger was released he said he hoped it would breed another. The franchise business blossomed in the 80s, but is markedly more rampant now than it was even 10 years ago.

Indeed, many of Bruckheimer's earlier hits remain self-contained and sequel-free. "Not because the studio didn't want to [make them]," he says, denting my theory. "With Top Gun we just never could crack the story. We tried to develop something, Tom Cruise tried to develop something, Tony Scott [recently] had a way in to it and there was a lot of excitement, but unfortunately we lost him. But Paramount still wants to make a sequel, Tom wants to make a sequel. Tony's way in was excellent, and if we can get a good director to agree with it, it could happen."

'As long as people show up for big movies, Hollywood's gonna keep making them. At some point maybe they won't, and it'll be over'

Things have definitely changed, though: these days, franchise culture is huge. "It's all about making money," concedes Bruckheimer, although that's hardly a dirty secret. "If you have a title that has real value because it made a lot of money, they'll wanna make another one. It's pre-sold, they don't have to advertise it so much, the advertising budget is a lot less."

The Lone Ranger's financial failure in the US is indicative of a bigger problem in the industry. There are too many blockbusters in cinemas; audiences can't see them all, and they're not flocking to do so. In June, Steven Spielberg predicted a Hollywood implosion if there was a summer in which a handful of big-budget films flopped, and that summer began about five minutes after he'd finished talking: After Earth, Pacific Rim, White House Down and RIPD were all box-office sadfaces. So rammed is the marketplace that studios are bagsying desirable release dates years in advance, which is why we have Spider-Man 4 being announced a year before Spider-Man 2 is even out. What are Bruckheimer's thoughts on this? "An audience will decide if there will be blockbusters," he replies. "I don't think Hollywood decides that. As long as people show up for big movies, I think Hollywood's gonna keep making them. At some point maybe they won't, and it'll be over."

He doesn't see that happening any time soon, however. "Do you have a kitchen? Do you ever go out to eat?" It's an analogy he's clearly used before, and he maintains that, despite owning TV sets, people will always want to go to the movies. My point, though, is that the marketplace is catastrophically overcrowded. "It is," he agrees, "but that'll change, too. Because if a studio makes three tentpole movies and only two perform, they'll only make two."

Bruckheimer isn't wavering, but he must have been rocked by The Lone Ranger's failure; in development for six years, its fate sealed after just a day of release. How does he analyse such a result? He smiles: "The audience tells you what works and what doesn't." Surely it's not that simple? "It's not quite that simple, but you certainly can gauge when you watch an audience where the things that they aren't embracing come from. So you learn from it. You learn more from your failures than you do your successes. If there are things in movies we think we could have done better, you hope to imprint that on the next movie. You learn from the past, from things that might not have worked. And you try not to do it again."

His publicist slinks in; our 15 minutes are up. "Terrific talking to you," beams Bruckheimer, before turning straight to her. "What's happening?"

The Lone Ranger is in UK cinemas now


Alex Godfrey

The GuardianTramp

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