Sunday, September 12, 2021


Warner Bros. 2020 logo redesign by Pentagram

Watching Warner Bros’ latest film “Space Jam: A New Legacy” at the cinema was an interesting experience. With a story based within the company’s computer servers, I needed the cinema-sized screen to catch all the references to the company’s characters from their films and “properties” in the crowd watching the climactic basketball match between LeBron James and the program running the show, “Al-G Rhythm”. 

The film has received negative reviews for the general product placement of, well, Warner Bros. itself: it is strange to see a family film sprayed with characters and locations from far more adult productions, like “Mad Max: Fury Road”, “A Clockwork Orange,” “Game of Thrones,” Pennywise from “It”, and Vanessa Redgrave’s Sister Jeanne des Anges from Ken Russell’s “The Devils” – I sincerely doubt the latter would get as worked up over basketball than what goes on in their own film (really, look it up).


As a film fan and student, I believe Warner Bros. is the Hollywood studio, shaping the art form, staying on top of it for a hundred years, and preserving its past, even if through mergers and acquisitions: the new “Space Jam” film features MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz” and Tom & Jerry alongside Hanna-Barbera characters, including The Flintstones, and RKO Radio Pictures’ original King Kong. The breadth and scale of Warner Bros. today is belied by only just mentioning Looney Tunes now, followed by DC Comics, HBO, CNN, and “Friends”. 


It is meant to be distasteful to bring business into art, but the history of Warner Bros. is the exception that proves the rule: “The Jazz Singer” is not known as “Warner Bros’ Supreme Triumph” for nothing, not least because the studio proclaimed the film as such upon its release in 1927. Far more than making “talking pictures” viable commercially, through Al Jolson’s effortless use of his established catchphrase “you ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” the notion of what a ALL FILMS made before or since “The Jazz Singer”, and the idea of film itself as a medium, will feature a soundtrack of some kind, whether one is added to a “silent” film, or even when a conscious decision is made to be “silent” for any length of time, for Warner Bros. and Western Electric developed the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system to provide musical accompaniment and sound effects in all cinemas, even those that could not afford its own band or orchestra.


For a company only properly incorporated in 1923, and having only built their studios in Sunset Boulevard in 1918, Warner Bros. had enough cash from the box office of “The Jazz Singer” to buy up a brace of music publishers, suddenly a necessary part of film production, and the Stanley theatre chain, which came with a one-third ownership of a far bigger film producer and distributor: the current Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, California was built by First National, whose name continued to be used for some time. These investments helped to pioneer both the musical film genre and the initial use of Technicolor, and to allow a switch to comedy, horror and gangster films when audiences’ tastes changed.

However, the content-rich current state of Warner Bros. is precisely down to the corporate upheavals in Hollywood that took place following the anti-trust lawsuits that separated cinema chains from film producers, the rise of television, and sheer bad luck. Its massive purchase of the Turner Broadcasting System in 1996 reunited Warner Bros. with the pre-1950 films and cartoons it sold in 1956 to support itself at an uncertain time, but this also came with the pre-1986 MGM film library, RKO’s library from “King Jong” to “Citizen Kane”, and all of Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon series too. Ted Turner built up this collection to provide content to his TV networks, from Cartoon Network to TBS and TNT, but he sold on the MGM film company because he overextended himself, despite keeping the rights to their films. Similar divestments by Warner Bros. in previous years included Nickelodeon, MTV and VH1, along with their cable TV network that built these channels, and the computer game company Atari.


Watching “Space Jam: A New Legacy” made me think I was watching a film studio writing a love letter to itself, albeit one I’ll happily act as a co-signatory. What I think the scriptwriters could have done, considering the film is mainly set in a virtual reality run by a computer algorithm, is they could have made more of the connection with “The Matrix”, especially with Warner Bros. releasing the fourth film in the series this Christmas.

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