Disney opens fire on ‘Pearl Harbor’: $145 mil

Posted on Nov 19, 1999

Ok, Disney has given Michael the greenlight on doing Tennessee! Read more about it below

By Chris Gennusa

The Walt Disney Co. has said yes to the most expensive live-action film ever greenlit, Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay’s $145 million “Pearl Harbor” (a k a “Tennessee”) written by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Randall Wallace (“Braveheart”).

While other pictures — most notably 20th Century Fox and Paramount’s $200 million opus “Titanic” and Warner Bros.’ “Wild Wild West” — have cost more, no movie has been given the go-ahead with such a lofty price tag. (Fox committed to “Titanic” when the film was expected to cost a mere $90 million-$100 million.)

The previous watermark was Bay and Bruckheimer’s “Armageddon,” which Disney greenlit at a budget of $135 million. The decision to move forward on “Pearl Harbor” follows weeks of negotiations among Disney, producer Bruckheimer and director Bay, who both made financial concessions to get the picture made.

Under terms of the greenlight, neither Bruckheimer nor Bay will receive their regular first-dollar gross deal, and their back-end participation will be far less than on previous pictures. They will also be held responsible for budgetary overages. The project’s expense stems from Bay’s wish to re-create fully the early-morning bombing of the Hawaiian naval base that pulled the United States into World War II.

Because the money is being spent on production, sources said the picture will be made without A-list star salaries and instead rely on the internationally known Bruckheimer-Bay brand. It is expected that lesser-known actors will be cast, unless top stars are willing to work for scale.

Last month, a second-unit production crew began work on “Pearl Harbor,” even though Disney Studios chairman Joe Roth had not given the drama an official thumbs up. Weeks later, second-unit production stopped, and word came that the filmmakers were trying to shave the budget by reworking the script.

Some pegged the original budget at $200 million. As of last week, sources said the budget was $153 million-$154 million, but it was understood that the studio wanted it trimmed to $140 million. Interestingly, during the studio’s negotiations with the filmmakers, the project began showing up on Disney news releases as a done deal.

Disney has entered into “split rights” deals with other studios, but the studio is committed to financing “Pearl Harbor” on its own, sources said. Disney will likely approach foreign financing entities about investing in the project, but producing-financing firm Spyglass Entertainment (a Disney-based equity partner) has not yet been approached.

“Pearl Harbor” (a working title) begins months before the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese bombing of the Pearl Harbor U.S. naval base in Hawaii and focuses on a pair of brothers who fall in love with the same woman. One brother remains on American soil in the U.S. Air Force, while the other goes overseas to fight in the United Kingdom.

Bay initially called the project “Tennessee,” apparently a code name. Sources said he did not want to repeat the situation in which he found himself with “Armageddon.” When word of that project leaked, DreamWorks and Paramount immediately put the similarly themed “Deep Impact” into production, causing a well-publicized race to the screen.

The commitment to “Pearl Harbor” marks a leap of faith for Disney as the company has been making cutbacks across the board.

With Disney stock hovering at $23-$29 per share for most of the year, company chairman and CEO Michael Eisner recently took the unusual step of holding a conference with shareholders to propose ways to boost profits and lift the stock price. In addition to making staff and budgetary cutbacks, he announced that the company will make a large percentage of its animated classics permanently available on video for the first time.

Disney has long attempted to keep budgets down, a company mantra since a famous memo was issued by Jeffrey Katzenberg in which the then-studio chief proclaimed the benefits of lower budgets following the relatively disappointing performance of “Dick Tracy.”

Bruckheimer and Bay, who have long-term deals at Disney, have collaborated on such films as “Armageddon” and “The Rock.” Separately, Bruckheimer (with late partner Don Simpson) has made such top money earners as “Flashdance,” “Top Gun” and “Crimson Tide.”

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You can read an article on Bay and Tennessee at http://www.aint-it-cool-news.com. I had the pleasure of meeting Harry Knowles of AICN in Santa Monica. He was cool. We talked a little about Michael and the usual reaction critics and film snobs. Harry is one of the few “film geeks” that actually enjoys Michael’s work.