PALMDALE, Calif. — “It’s a wonder, isn’t it?” the producer Jerry Bruckheimer asked rhetorically, looking up at a three-story reconstruction of the ship the Black Pearl on the set of “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.”
Peter Mountain/Walt Disney Pictures
This year, he was on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” set with the director Gore Verbinski, left, and the actor Johnny Depp.
He wasn’t talking about the three-masted square rigger, or even the 1,400 ceiling lights, which became so hot one day during filming some burst into flames. Nor was he referring to the 60-foot-high blue screen wrapped around the ship like a shower curtain hung from an oversized rail. What was a wonder, Mr. Bruckheimer mused one recent afternoon, was that the sequels to the first successful “Pirates” movie were made at all.
“They almost got canceled many times; money, budget, you name it,” Mr. Bruckheimer said as he walked up a flight of wooden stairs to the deck where director Gore Verbinski was rehearsing a scene with Johnny Depp for the third “Pirates” installment, which is due out this May.
Such challenges getting movies made are increasingly common in Hollywood these days. But what gave it a twist here was that Mr. Bruckheimer was referring to the Walt Disney Company's biggest franchise in years, “Pirates,” and that cost-cutting was an issue even for him, the most powerful producer in Hollywood.
In an era when producers, directors, and even popular actors are required to toe a stricter line, Mr. Bruckheimer, too, is feeling the squeeze. His contribution to Disney cannot be underestimated; he has produced 17 films for it since 1991 which have brought in $5 billion at box offices around the world. Of those, he is best known for his action-packed adult thrillers like “Enemy of the State,” “Armageddon” and “Gone in 60 Seconds,” where car crashes, sexy leading ladies and explosions abound.
But as part of a corporate shift under the new Disney chief executive Robert Iger, the studio pledged this summer to make fewer films and focus on family-friendly movies that are marketable across all the company’s businesses, including theme parks, plush toys and television. That meant Mr. Bruckheimer was now in the onscreen amusement park business — a far cry from the highly stylized, color-saturated movies and television shows that made him famous.
Indeed his formula has been so successful, the producer’s foray into television in 2000 with “CSI” (an idea rejected by Disney executives) has become the cornerstone of a series of gritty procedural dramas that now make up about one-third of the CBS network’s prime-time lineup.
But while Hollywood producers often leave when a studio changes direction, Mr. Bruckheimer still has a few years left on his five-year contract with Disney. And many in Hollywood who know him suggest that it is Disney who will have to accommodate its star, not the other way around.
Terry Rossio, one of the writers of the “Pirates” trilogy, explained it this way, recalling a recent conversation with Mr. Bruckheimer about the blockbusters he produced during his 30-year career.
“I was standing on the deck of the Black Pearl with Jerry and I had to make small talk which is hard to do because he doesn’t talk much,” Mr. Rossio recalled. “Out of nowhere I asked him, ‘How do you get to be Jerry Bruckheimer?’ He replied, ‘Most people don’t understand the nature of power.’ His sentiment was you fight along the lines of what people already want. You put yourself where your agenda and the agenda of the people you are working with are the same. The reason Jerry rarely has to dig in his heels is because he doesn’t set up a situation where he has to.”
One coming Bruckheimer movie that will not fit the new Disney mold is “Déjà Vu,” a science fiction thriller directed by his longtime collaborator Tony Scott, to be released Nov. 22 by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures. “That wasn’t a typical Disney movie,” Mr. Bruckheimer said. (Among other things, a gas-soaked body is charred by fire.)
Disney would not want to lose Mr. Bruckheimer. The studio has made new deals with other producers, including the New York-based Scott Rudin, who is known for literary fare like “The Hours” and “Closer.” But since Mr. Bruckheimer began making blockbusters in the 1980s with Don Simpson, his late business partner — including “Top Gun” and “Beverly Hills Cop” — few others have matched his record.
“Our bread and butter, and where Jerry’s ultimate value is, is he is our Disney home run hitter,” said Richard Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios. “And that is what we want him to do.”