Warner Bros. is certainly such a brand, and if you have your doubts, consider this: Benjamin Warner, father of the fabled brothers, endured numerous hardships in Poland until he immigrated to the US in 1883, bringing his family over a year later. Of the 12 children his wife Pearl bore, three didn’t live past childhood and one died at the age of 19. At one point he and his family spent two years penniless and freezing in Canada because a crooked business partner stole the beaver pelts they were supposed to use to start a business.
Even Jack, Abe, Sam, and Harry – the brothers behind the brand – fared poorly in the early days of the industry that would eventually make them rich and famous. They began their careers as film exhibitors and cleaned up showing early silent movies, but Thomas Edison joined with the nascent studios to charge fees to any exhibitors who used his patented technology, which were all of them, and the Warners quickly found themselves out of business.
Harry then suggested that they make their own films, but their first two efforts were largely ignored. Undaunted, they supported the attempts of another studio to break Edison’s stranglehold on the business, and this time they met with success. That is, they were successful until a film they paid US$ 100,000 for (a US Civil War drama called “The Crisis”) bombed when it was released the day before World War I started. Eventually, though, they produced a hit called “My Four Years in Germany,” which grossed US$ 1,500,000 and they were able to build their own studio the following year in 1919.
The brothers’ perseverance paid off and Warner Bros. became one of the most successful film studios in the world. They helped pioneer the era of the "talkies," which killed the silent film business with the groundbreaking hit "The Jazz Singer." They were also responsible for such classics as "The Public Enemy," which made James Cagney a star; "42nd Street," which broke new ground in the musicals genre; and "Casablanca," which starred the immortal Humphrey Bogart at the height of his career.
Warner Bros. became associated with rough environments and tough anti-heroes. The studio struck a chord with filmgoers who identified with many of the characters’ struggles.
As they aged, the Warner brothers – a cantankerous lot – saw their relationships fray over sharp differences in opinion. They watched as a new medium called television eroded film theater admissions, and in 1956, Jack, Harry, and Abe agreed to a buy-out by a group of investors. In a move befitting a film plot, Jack went behind his brothers’ backs and repurchased his shares after the deal closed, thus retaining principal ownership. Ten years later, though, Jack sold out to Seven Arts Productions, and in 1969, Kinney National Co. purchased the company, which became Warner Communications, Inc.
By 1978, all of Benjamin Warner’s children were dead, and Warner Bros. was a far cry from its humble beginnings as a film exhibition company. It was now part of a large conglomerate that would only get bigger, and it had diversified its business considerably during the previous decades.
In 1930, it entered the animation business through a deal with Leon Schlesinger and his Looney Tunes cartoons, starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and several other now well-known characters. In 1958, the company had established Warner Bros. Records and cashed in on the rock ‘n’ roll craze. And in 1968 they moved into the comic book business when they acquired DC Comics, home of Superman, Batman, and other superheroes.
But in 1989, Warner Bros. moved far beyond the entertainment industry when Time, Inc. purchased Warner Communications and created Time Warner, Inc., the world’s largest media and entertainment company. More diversification quickly followed with the establishment of the WB Network in 1995; the 1996 merger of Time Warner, Inc. and Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., which made an already-labyrinthine conglomerate even bigger; and the 2001 creation of the monster that is AOL Time Warner, Inc.
Today, the original Warner brothers probably wouldn’t recognize their little film studio; it’s just a sucker on one tentacle of an octopus that owns three sports teams, several television networks, numerous magazines, many book publishers, various music labels, multiple film studios, and more. (Want to see the whole list? Visit Columbia Journalism Review.)
Several images of yesteryear are still strongly associated with the brand – Porky Pig breaking through the company’s distinctive "WB" shield logo and announcing "Th-th-th-that’s all folks!," a bitter Rick Blaine drinking his troubles away in a darkened bar in Casablanca, and Superman flying across the screen in his big-budget feature film debut – but none from the current day have any resonance. Such is the danger when brands are swallowed up by corporate behemoths.
The Warner penchant for risking the farm on business deals still survives, however. In April 2002, AOL Time Warner announced a US$ 54 billion loss for the first quarter of 2002 – widely believed to be the largest quarterly loss for a corporation in US history. The company blames the loss on a steep downturn in market value during the year since its creation. Although its stock price didn’t suffer much as a result, one has to wonder if both AOL and Time Warner took too large of a risk with their merger – a topic that was hotly debated.
At this point, however, all that has little to do with the Warner Bros. brand, which arguably died when AOL Time Warner shuttered all 130 of its WB stores shortly after the merger. They were the last place where one could view the mystique that was once Warner Bros., and the brand passed into history with their demise.