How Jerry Bruckheimer Rescued ‘Young Woman and the Sea’ From Streaming

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The legendary producer urged Disney to give the film a theatrical release after earning the highest test scores of his career

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Daisy Ridley in "Young Woman and the Sea"

Disney’s “Young Woman and the Sea” is the kind of well-crafted, big-hearted, based-on-a-true-story adventure that used to be commonplace at the local multiplex, but isn’t anymore.

The story of perseverance and fighting against the odds that is dramatized on screen by Daisy Ridley as Trudy Ederle, the first woman to swim across the English Channel, was mirrored behind-the-scenes — the film was destined to debut on Disney+ in an ocean of straight-to-streaming films, but wound up in the most unlikely of places: in movie theaters.

The film’s Friday opening marks Disney’s first limited release in over a decade, a rarity for the studio that relegates its titles to one of two fates: A mega-release on 3,000 screens or straight to Disney+.

This feat was accomplished through the tireless efforts of one man – producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

The 1920s-set film was shot in 2022, at a time when Disney was bulking up on content for its streaming service Disney+. Those efforts have since died down, and CEO Bob Iger admitted their streaming push “resulted in volume and not quality, which turned out to be a mistake.” But even before Iger reversed course, Bruckheimer was pushing to get “Young Woman and the Sea” in theaters for one very specific reason.

“It was the highest testing movie I’ve ever made,” Bruckheimer told TheWrap. This is remarkable considering the 80-year-old producer is the man behind “The Rock,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Top Gun: Maverick” (to name a few).

“They said, ‘Wait a second here, you might have something,’” the producer continued. “They reevaluated it, they loved the movie and now they’re getting so many accolades from anybody who sees it, it’s such an emotional story. And it’s also a story about a woman that got lost in time and should be remembered.”

He’s right about the accolades – Ridley said that she met Diana Nyad at a screening the night before our interview and she “told me that she was impressed with my swimming.”

Bruckheimer first acquired the rights to Glenn Stout’s nonfiction book “Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World” in 2015. It was initially set up at Paramount with Lily James in the role that would eventually played by Ridley, and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson said there was at least one other studio that flirted with the project before it landed at Disney, where Bruckheimer made “The Rock,” “Armageddon” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. (All-told Bruckheimer has made 30 films for Disney, beginning in the early 1990s.).

In December 2020, Disney announced that the film was in development with Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Rønning, with whom Bruckheimer worked on “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” for a Disney+ release. Production finally began in May 2022 and wrapped the following month.

Despite the fact that it was greenlight as a streaming movie, Bruckheimer said that he always wanted it to have a theatrical exhibition. Rønning held out hope too.

“Not to be pretentious or anything, but I feel that my art form is cinema. That’s what I grew up with. That’s what inspired me to be a filmmaker,” Rønning told TheWrap. “And I shoot anything like it’s supposed to be on the big screen.”

“Young Woman and the Sea” was no different.

Disney used to refer to movies like this internally as “brand deposits;” they were inspirational, oftentimes based on actual events, with mid-sized budgets and modest box office goals. The “brand deposit” moniker meant that it was a movie that served the underlying ethos of the Disney brand. Even if it didn’t make any money, it was a movie that was inherently Disney. Think of Lupita Nyong’o chess movie “Queen of Katwe” or “The Finest Hours,” starring Chris Pine as a crewman on a doomed fishing vessel. There was a time when “Saving Mr. Banks,” a $35 million drama about the making of “Mary Poppins,” would be a wide release – and make money.

But when Disney+ came along, these movies were relegated to the streaming service – projects like historical dogsled drama “Togo” with Willem Dafoe and uplifting sports movies like “Safety” and “Rise.”

This was the fate that would have befallen “Young Woman and the Sea,” but then those high test scores came in.

Bruckheimer said that he’s often governed by the idea of: “Do I want to see it? It’s all about how you create something that will pull an audience in, transport them to another place and make them forget about their lives and the world around them.” With “Young Woman and the Sea,” he said, “When you walk out of this, you feel like you’re really been on an emotional journey. We always say we’re in the transportation business; we transport you from one place to another. That’s why people meditate. They want to forget everything and clear their minds. We give them something really special when we make it right. And we don’t always get it right.”

According to Rønning, getting Disney to change course on release strategy may not have been as easy as his superstar producer made it out to be. And he gives full credit to Bruckheimer for making it happen.

“When you have someone like Jerry Bruckheimer on your team really putting pressure [that makes a difference]. It wasn’t that hard for Disney to go ahead and do a theatrical release, and I respect that process, the algorithms and the cost around it,” Rønning said. “But then we made it [to the big screen] and I’m thrilled. It’s such an epic story, and it deserves the big screen.”

It’s also not the first time Bruckheimer made a gamble on a theatrical release. He and Tom Cruise were adamant that “Top Gun: Maverick” wait for an ideal release window outside of COVID rather than drop the film on streaming. It paid off to the tune of $1.5 billion worldwide.

If “Young Woman and the Sea” is a hit when it opens in limited release on Friday, then its theatrical presence will expand, with more theaters and more screens, something Bruckheimer hopes will happen.

For pushing to get this movie into theaters and many other reasons, Rønning calls the producer “my hero.”

Not that Bruckheimer has that much time to dissect “Young Woman and the Sea” and its big screen win. Bruckheimer, who will soon celebrate his 81st birthday, said that the most time he can take off is “a weekend,” and he has several other projects opening this summer, including “Bad Boys: Ride or Die,” which hits theaters next week.

But he did offer some self-reflection on the idea of retirement.

“They’ll stop me someday, when I miss the audience,” he said. “Because I make movies I want to see and someday I won’t connect with them. But now it’s still so much fun.”

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