Sunday, August 24, 2003

Big-time producer reshapes TV

What do Flashdance, C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation, Beverly Hills Cop, The Amazing Race, Pirates of the Caribbean, Bad Boys II and Without A Trace have in common?

Jerry Bruckheimer.

The all-purpose producer, who has made millions worldwide with Top Gun, Pearl Harbor, Remember the Titans, Con Air and Black Hawk Down, has changed the style and substance of TV in just three years. The special effects and storytelling on CSI - TV's No. 1 drama and No. 2 series (behind Joe Millionaire) - have raised the bar for all TV.

"Feature television" is what CSI creator Anthony Zuiker calls Bruckheimer's touch.

Bruckheimer is "trying to make feature television, and mini-Bruckheimer movies every week," says Zuiker, an executive producer on CSI and spinoff CSI: Miami, the No. 1 new drama, and No. 13 overall, for the TV year ending Sept. 20.

More due this fall

The influence of Bruckheimer, the man who made science sexy, will be more pervasive this fall.

Without a Trace: FBI's missing persons squad begins a second season Sept. 25 (10 p.m., CBS).
Cold Case: Kathryn Morris (Minority Report, Jerry Maguire) debuts as Philadelphia's only female homicide detective solving old crimes, Sept. 28 (8 p.m., CBS).
Skin: A zealous prosecutor (Kevin Anderson, Nothing Sacred) pursues a pornographer (Ron Silver, The West Wing), while the lawman's son dates the porno king's daughter, starting Oct. 20 (9 p.m. Fox).
Fearless: Rachel Leigh Cook (She's All That) plays a young FBI agent who fears nothing on a WB midseason drama.
The Amazing Race: Bruckheimer awaits renewal from CBS after the fourth season ended Thursday.
C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation: Las Vegas investigators return for a fourth season Sept. 25 (9 p.m., CBS).
CSI: Miami: Dade County criminalists start their second season Sept. 22 (10 p.m., CBS).
His Without A Trace, the second-highest rated new show (No. 16), has consistently beaten ER in reruns this summer. More than 52 million people watch his three CBS dramas weekly, plus another 8 million watch The Amazing Race.

Cold Case, his fifth CBS series, premieres Sept. 28 with Bruckheimer's trademark CSI-like grainy flashbacks.

Skin, a Fox drama about prosecution of a pornographer, premieres Oct. 20 on Fox. Fearless, a WB drama, will become his seventh series at midseason.

But what makes Bruckheimer TV distinctive is the quality, not the quantity. The workaholic impresses his employees, particularly his show-runners attending the TV press tour last month. (Bruckheimer was in London and Japan, preoccupied with the premieres of Bad Boys II and Pirates of the Caribbean, his latest box-office hits.)

"Jerry actually reads every script, and he watches every reel of dailies and every rough cut for all the shows. He's very involved," says Jonathan Littman, a former Fox executive hired to start Bruckheimer's TV division in 1997.

Littman had just spent the morning on the phone with Bruckheimer before meeting with TV writers at the July press tour. "He had a 10-hour flight from London, and he read every script, and he had notes on it all," Littman says.

Loveland High School graduate Ann Donahue, an executive producer on CSI and CSI: Miami, says Bruckheimer's involvement compares to her old boss on ABC's High Incident police series: Steven Spielberg.

"From Speilberg and Jerry, you get the same kind of specificity - probably because they're used to film, where every mistake shows, so you can't afford any," says Donahue, who also has worked for Steven Bochco (Murder One), Stephen J. Cannell (21 Jump Street) and David E. Kelley (Picket Fences).

Jerry Bruckheimer's greatest box-office hits:
Flashdance (1983)
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Top Gun (1986)
Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)
Days of Thunder (1990)
Bad Boys (1995)
Dangerous Minds (1995)
Crimson Tide (1995)
The Rock (1996)
Con Air (1997)
Armageddon (1998)
Remember the Titans (2000)
Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Pearl Harbor (2001)
Bad Company (2002)
Bad Boys II (2003)
Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)
She recalls a conversation with Bruckheimer about the CSI: Miami season finale in May:

"He loved our finale, but he said there would have been more officers in uniform around the bad guy at the very end. Now he's noticing the number of extras I had in the scene! That's incredible!" says Donahue, who will be the CSI: Miami executive producer this fall.

Danny Cannon, director and executive producer for both CSIs, says Bruckheimer encourages people to think outside the box.

"Before, you would ... go out there and point your camera in the right direction, and record the dialogue," Cannon says. "We're asking directors to be a lot more creative than that ... You have to story-tell with the camera. You have to ... edit this thing creatively. You have to add music creatively."

One veteran TV director sarcastically thanked Cannon, "because we've raised the bar a little bit ... It's a lot harder to direct these shows than other shows on television. I don't mind saying that," says Cannon, who also directed I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and The Young Americans.

Though the most influential TV producer of the new millennium was absent from the TV writers' gathering, Bruckheimer has shared secrets to his success at previous press tours.

"I love the speed of (TV)," Bruckheimer said in 2001, explaining that he worked eight years to make Beverly Hills Cop, and five on Top Gun.

"TV is so wonderful. You read a script, you get notes, and two weeks later it's on the air. It's fantastic.... So this is fun for me," he told TV critics two years ago.

One of his greatest skills is hiring talented people, and letting "them do what they know how to do," he said.

Donahue says his criticisms usually are positive: "He totally respects you. He will talk to me about a story note that says, 'I don't think that would happen,' or 'I think you missed something there.' He doesn't say, 'You must do this!' It's very empowering."

Although he is known for big explosions and special effects, Bruckheimer's top priorities are plot and character development.

"Story and character and themes, those are the most important things," he said in 2001. "If we do that well, then audiences will be entertained. And it's more about that than car chases, or gunshots, or explosions," said Bruckheimer, who grew up in Detroit, the son of German immigrants who could barely speak English.

All of Bruckheimer's CBS dramas focus on the process used to solve crimes. All have a similar dark look, though only the CSIs use the "snap zoom" close-ups on evidence.

And all the producers have discussed how to keep a signature style without hurting the CSI mother ship.

"We do not want to dilute the franchise. We are not greedy people. We want to do quality television, and we don't want to do anything that's going to mess this up," says Zuiker, who says another CSI spin-off is "at least two, three years" away.

"There's a little CSI DNA in all of these shows," Donahue acknowledges, "but I can tell you one thing: It's supply and demand. And the audience will tell you when they've had enough. They'll just turn off the TV."

That day may come, as it did for producer Aaron Spelling in the 1980s. But evidence points to another big year for Bruckheimer shows.


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