An unlikely mogul produces feature television

Apr 28, 2003  •  Post A Comment

About two years ago, CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves asked for a meeting with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and others associated with the hit show CSI. “He called in all the principals and said, `I want to do another CSI,” recalls Mr. Bruckheimer with a chuckle. “You could see the writers. The color just drained out of their faces. They’re already working 18-, 19-hour days to produce one show. To put on another show …. How could we do it?”

It didn’t take long for Mr. Bruckheimer to figure it out. “That’s what I love about television,” said the Detroit native and former ad exec who has been producing movies since the mid-1970s. “Television is fast.”

With help from CBS, the spin-off was soon on its way to reality. “I came up with the idea for [setting it in] Miami,” Mr. Bruckheimer recalled. “There’s something sexy about Miami.”

As this season ends, that spinoff, CSI: Miami, is one of its few genuine dramatic hits. Another is the CBS drama Without a Trace, which Mr. Bruckheimer also produces.

In only three years, while continuing to make big-budget movies, Mr. Bruckheimer has become the hottest producer in TV. In addition to the three dramas, he has Amazing Race on CBS and pilots at Fox, CBS and The WB. He also has five features in the works, with two films due to open within weeks of each other in July.

In his offices in an unmarked brick building in a nondescript industrial area of Santa Monica, Calif., Mr. Bruckheimer is anything but the typical Hollywood mogul. He speaks softly and seems to genuinely enjoy what he does. He is quick to give credit for his many successes to the directors, writers, actors and cinematographers who do what he calls “the backbreaking work.”

What is his secret? “You know, it’s having great people to work with,” he said with convincing humility. “They really are supportive.”

Many are relatively new to the business. They get freedom but also learn his system. He doesn’t do the job for them, but does read every script, watch all dailies and give notes on every show. “What we know how to do is make interesting entertainment. That’s what we’re good at,” he said. “And we let the people who are good at what they do handle the rest, whether it’s a great showrunner or CBS selling the show. That’s part of my success. I don’t dabble in areas I know nothing about.”

Mr. Bruckheimer is known for spending on his productions but makes sure most of it ends up on the screen. “Anthony Zuiker, who created CSI, calls what we do `feature television,”’ he said. “We bring a lot of quality by using feature film talent, especially behind the camera.”

Mr. Bruckheimer doesn’t put up any of the cash. That comes from the network and a producing partner. On CSI it was Alliance Atlantis. On The Amazing Race it is Touchstone, CBS and Bertram van Munster. In early April, Mr. Bruckheimer renewed an agreement worth at least $10 million with Warner Bros. for Without A Trace.

Mr. Bruckheimer has had a long association with Disney, but that studio passed on CSI, saying it was too expensive. The L.A. Times estimated that that decision could cost Disney $500 million in lost profits.

The icing on the cake came last week when King World (through CBS) made a deal to sell off-net runs of CSI: Miami to the Arts & Entertainment network for about $1 million an episode, one of the highest amounts ever paid for a freshman show. “That will help cover the deficit,” Mr. Bruckheimer said, smiling. “The real payoff will come in syndication.”

Not everyone loves what Mr. Bruckheimer does. His shows, like his movies, attract large audiences but rarely win prestigious awards. Some blast what they call the “Bruckheimerization” of cinema-the trend toward big-event action films. In TV, critics carp that his style shows up in fast pacing, quick cuts and splashy use of music.

The producer of Top Gun and Black Hawk Down, Mr. Bruckheimer came in for criticism earlier this year for his documentary-style show Profiles From the Front Line, done with cooperation from the defense department. The series was cut short when war broke out. ABC was concerned that some viewers might confuse it with the real thing in Iraq.

He will show up to support any number of charities, but Mr. Bruckheimer isn’t a regular on the Hollywood party scene. These days, his idea of a good time, besides work, is playing amateur hockey and jogging.

Frequently on the road-visiting sets, doing publicity, making more deals-he schedules stops in Florida to visit his elderly mother. He also visits his wife Linda, an author, who has been developing and restoring her hometown of Bloomfield, Kentucky.

While he has accomplished almost everything that he set out to do in TV, there is always more. “I think I’m still the kid from Detroit who is trying to make it in Hollywood,” Mr. Bruckheimer said.