Producer Jerry Bruckheimer on studios vs streamers, Axel Foley’s return and trying to make Top Gun 3

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Producer Jerry Bruckheimer on studios vs streamers, Axel Foley’s return and trying to make Top Gun 3

Jerry Bruckheimer is anxious. On a summer morning in Los Angeles, the veteran producer of blockbusters is a picture of calm. But looks can be deceptive. Bruckheimer has a new film imminent, one that like many of his projects is actually a sequel: Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F, the fourth adventure for Eddie Murphy’s raucous detective, at large in La La Land. 

“I’m nervous,” Bruckheimer says. “I always am when a movie is coming out. If I was smart, every one would be a hit, and obviously I’m not that smart.”

The jitters are disarming. The film business is filled with nervous people, but Bruckheimer is as close as Hollywood has left to an actual Yoda. Now 80, the producer can look back on a career that has endured for half a century. The original Beverly Hills Cop, co-produced with his late professional partner Don Simpson, was a smash in 1984. Two years later, the pair made Top Gun, with then not-quite-superstar Tom Cruise. After Simpson’s death in 1996, Bruckheimer produced Armageddon and the five films in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. His filmography is vast, and spotted with some of the most popular mass entertainments in modern American history. (Globally, his movies are estimated to have grossed a total of $12.6bn.)

Bruckheimer, right, with professional partner, Don Simpson, who died in 1996, and Eddie Murphy on the set of ‘Beverly Hills Cop II’ in 1987 . . .  © Everett/Shutterstock
A man standing in a crashed car holds his arms up to arresting officers in a scene from a film
. . . and Murphy’s return to the character of Axel Foley in the new Netflix film ‘Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F’ © Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix

After his confession of jitters, a more bullish mood soon arises. Bruckheimer’s thick red hair belies his age. So too his workload. He says he has been out of LA for more than 200 days in the last year, “in the trenches” on film sets. Much of that was spent on one of Hollywood’s biggest hopes for next summer, an untitled Formula One epic starring Brad Pitt, funded by Apple. “I like it busy,” he says over Zoom. “I’d be bored to death otherwise.”

In the same period, his own output has been prodigious. In 2024 thus far, Bruckheimer has released a film with Sony (Bad Boys: Ride or Die) and Disney (historical true story Young Woman and The Sea), before the new Beverly Hills Cop comes out on Netflix. 

Today, he is polite about streaming, but assertively chipper about the future of cinema. “I’ve lived through so many reasons nobody is ever going to the movies again. I always come back to one question: you got a kitchen, right? But you still like a nice restaurant.”

At a time when Hollywood has struggled for good news, a striking amount has involved Bruckheimer. Consider 2022, when Covid had dealt a seeming death blow to filmgoing. Reuniting with Cruise, Bruckheimer was a producer on Top Gun: Maverick, the film whose grandstand presence in cinemas flipped the pessimism on its head.

More recently, though, Hollywood has slumped back into malaise. The first half of 2024 has brought a string of box-office flops. And yet, once again, Bruckheimer has bucked the trend, with significant success achieved by Bad Boys: Ride or Die, another fourth instalment in a venerable franchise. This time, however, there was an added complication: the film was the first made by Will Smith since the violent outburst at the 2022 Oscars that stalled his career. 

Bruckheimer is carefully supportive. “I still don’t know how to explain that incident. It wasn’t who Will is. I do know we all make serious mistakes. Unfortunately, Will made his in front of a lot of people.” (He also notes the double-edged nature of public interest in the film business: “We always get more spotlight than banking.”)

Two actors and a producer stand arm in arm by a swimming pool on a film set
With Will Smith and Martin Lawrence on the set of the first ‘Bad Boys’ film, released in 1995 . .. © Moviestore/Shutterstock a31d 4088 8b17 04adb2222c7c
. . . and Smith and Lawrence in the producer’s latest hit, and the fourth film in the franchise, ‘Bad Boys: Ride or Die’, released this year © Frank Masi

Audiences were clearly ready to forgive. And then there was Sony, who Bruckheimer says resolved to stick with Smith no matter what. “I think they saw it as a test case — and look what happened. The people that love Will still want to see him.”

The hit also fits a pattern. A year after the standalone triumphs of Barbie and Oppenheimer, recent box-office bright spots have almost all been sequels: Dune: Part Two, Inside Out 2, the fourth Bad Boys. Many see the form as the laziest kind of storytelling, Bruckheimer disagrees — passionately. “Doing a sequel well is a real balancing act. Because people want the same experience as last time, but they also won’t let you tell the same story. So creatively, those movies are hugely challenging to get right.”

A third Top Gun movie is still at the ideas stage with Paramount. “The hardest part is always the deal,” Bruckheimer says. But surely a hit of the scale of Top Gun: Maverick must help loosen the purse strings? He shakes his head wryly. “It’s funny. If you make a hit, the sequel has to be cheaper. Because the studio want another one, but they also think it will do less.”

Film producers go where the money is. A certain lack of sentiment — about movie stars or release platforms — comes with the job. Bruckheimer is open about it being Cruise who pushed Paramount to release Maverick in cinemas. “Tom had those conversations, because Tom is the power in the situation.”

He recalls visiting Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in LA during the film’s release to watch the crowds. “It felt nice letting people actually feel good about something. It’s the same now. Every time you turn on the news, it’s brutal.”

Bruckheimer has a limited amount in common with Axel Foley, wisecracking hero of Beverly Hills Cop. Like him, however, he started out in Detroit. As a child he collected stamps, going on to study psychology at university before a stint in advertising in New York. “I learned you have to have something unique to sell, even if it seems like the same thing.”

In his later partnership with Simpson, eye-popping tales of Hollywood excess swirled around his colleague. Meanwhile, Bruckheimer went to script meetings and edit suites. If the movies could be bombastic, they were also the result of the pair’s fascination with what audiences want. “My great advantage is I usually feel the same way they do.”

Two film producers sit on a sofa with two actors on a film set
Simpson and Bruckheimer on the set of the 1986 blockbuster ‘Top Gun’ with the film’s stars Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis . . . © Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock
A man leans on a car he is cleaning in a scene from a film
. . . and Cruise’s return to the character in ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ in 2022 © Scott Garfield

Bruckheimer speaks about big-budget, multiplex filmmaking as matter-of-factly as a tailor might. “The essence of it never changes: plot, character, theme, talent, delivering emotion.” In line with such timelessness, he is sceptical of data-driven decisions. “Because, equally, what the audience wants constantly changes, and making movies takes so long that by the time yours comes out, the information you used to make it is outdated.”

Still, he is also at ease with the tech giants that now dominate what was once Hollywood. You sense he shares their Darwinian thinking. “What has changed with movies is the need to push ever harder to reach your audience. Good enough is what gets people into trouble.” 

There is also a limit to his fondness for traditional studios. “You’d be surprised how many studio people I’ve met who don’t know how a film set actually runs.” In conversation, Bruckheimer seems serene. Does he ever lose his temper with executives? “I have. Not often, but unfortunately you do sometimes have misguided ideas you need to straighten out.”

Movies in general have more straightening out ahead. Across the industry, mergers and takeovers loom. The loss of at least some streamers is inevitable, Bruckheimer says. The same may go for old-school studios. Back in the 1980s, he enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Paramount. Now, the company is locked in an ownership battle, rights to a third Top Gun and all.

“I hope Paramount stays Paramount. I don’t want to see it gobbled up for parts. But the industry needs to expand, and maybe if there are fewer studios, the ones left will make more content. Because the audience wants that.”

Still, some partnerships are thriving. Bruckheimer speaks admiringly about Formula One, not just for its help with his coming movie, but its all-round savvy. “Everyone could learn from how they operate.”

By the time the untitled film comes out next summer, he will be 81. Mention of retirement brings another amused shake of the head. “Oh no. They’ll have to carry me out. And then you’ll be speaking to someone else.”

‘Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F’ is on Netflix from July 3

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