Like the subtitle of his next "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, producer Jerry Bruckheimer has found himself "on stranger tides" at Disney.
Under new studio Chairman Rich Ross, Disney is tacking in a new direction, bringing more fiscal restraint to its movies — especially the costly spectacles that are Bruckheimer's stock in trade. His lavish, action-packed productions, from "Armageddon" to the multibillion-dollar franchise "Pirates of the Caribbean," have drawn crowds and contributed generously to Disney's bottom line.
The appeal of escapist entertainment hasn't changed. Disney's summer slate boasts two big Bruckheimer films, " Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." What has changed is the economics of the movie business. The deterioration of the lucrative DVD business, amid upward-spiraling production and marketing expenses, has prompted industrywide reforms that include a crackdown on budgets and talent.
Such pressures have come to bear even on Hollywood's most influential filmmakers, who are being reined in despite successful track records.
"Everyone is being asked to be more cost-conscious," said Cowen & Co. media analyst Doug Creutz. "The studios are being more careful about how much they give away on film profits."
Bruckheimer's next production, "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" — his 26th film for Disney in 16 years — dramatically illustrates the new reality.
With the fourth installment of the swashbuckling tale poised to start shooting June 14, Bruckheimer and the filmmakers are scrambling to meet the more constrained budget that Disney is imposing. Although it's still large — north of $200 million — it is at least a third less than the last "Pirates" movie and includes far fewer shooting days and visual effects shots.
Ross said that Bruckheimer, known for spending lavishly, is working within the new constraints. Bruckheimer reassured him of that in Ross' first week as studio chief, Ross said: "He looked at me and said, 'I will work with you to figure out the economics of the movies going forward because I understand what we are all facing.' And I said two words: thank you."
Even before Ross took the studio reins last fall, Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger was mandating that executives ratchet down costs after underperforming movies — including Bruckheimer's expensive family film "G-Force" — triggered two quarterly losses at the studio last year.
"He wants to be mean and lean and make these movies very entertaining but also very cost effective," Bruckheimer said.
In discussing the script for the fourth "Pirates" film, screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio were told that Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow character would spend more time on land than water because of the high cost of shooting on the high seas.
To save more money, the number and selection of filming locations changed. Whereas the prior installments were shot in the Caribbean and Los Angeles, the upcoming production will be filmed primarily in Hawaii and London, where tax credits are more favorable. The number of shooting days scheduled is 90 to 95, down from 142 on the last movie. Similarly, there are expected to be 1,300 to 1,400 visual effects shots, compared with 2,000.
Another loss is original "Pirates" director Gore Verbinski, who clashed with former studio chief Dick Cook over cost overruns on the third "Pirates" movie. (A spokesman for Verbinski says the director chose not to return because he wanted to work on another project.)
The new director, Rob Marshall, best known for his filmed stage musicals "Nine" and "Chicago," wasn't an obvious choice to helm a large-scale action epic. But Bruckheimer said he's up to the task. Marshall's background in choreography makes him adept at blocking out swordplay and stunts, and his jobs in TV and theater have given him experience with lower budgets, the producer said.
"This is by far the biggest budget I've ever worked with," Marshall said. "We're all working hard to keep it as lean as possible.... It's a tricky time in the economy. You can't be insane."
As preproduction gets underway in Hawaii, Marshall and Bruckheimer are going through the script line by line looking for more places to trim costs.
Gone is one shooting location four hours north of London that would have required an overnight stay for the cast and crew. Instead, filming in London will save $3 million to $4 million.
An "ice fair," in which jugglers and carnival acts would perform on a frozen River Thames, was excised too.
The filmmakers are also looking to shorten an elaborate carriage chase. As written, the scene in which the British pursue Jack Sparrow through the streets of London would require 12 shooting days, but it is being cut to four to six days.
"The hard thing is you have to make painful decisions that cut into some very entertaining sequences," Bruckheimer said. "You have to figure out how to keep the movie very entertaining and give the audience more than what they expect and yet be cost-effective about it."
It's unclear how moviegoers who expect each "Pirates" film to be bigger and splashier than the one before it will respond to cuts in effects. But as far as Bruckheimer is concerned, "the audience will never miss it."
Although Bruckheimer continues to be a key producer for Disney — the studio is honoring him this month with American Film Institute tribute — he's now being joined by another powerhouse filmmaker, DreamWorks principal Steven Spielberg, and the newly acquired superhero stable Marvel Entertainment. The cost pressures probably won't be limited to Bruckheimer's films.
Several people inside and outside Disney suggested that the studio may squeeze the lucrative production deal that supports Bruckheimer's overhead and includes a multimillion-dollar development fund.
The producer appears to be prepared for that eventuality. Last year he cut a deal with outside investors giving him access to several hundred million dollars in co-financing funds that he has not yet tapped but could under certain conditions, according to several people familiar with the matter. Bruckheimer declined to comment.
Asked whether he plans to trim Bruckheimer's sails, Ross said, "Jerry's relationship with us is incredibly important. It's one that takes up a lot of our time — happily."