The original sold audiences on Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny. ‘A New Legacy’ wants to sell audiences on Warner Brothers
“Get your Hanes on, lace up your Nikes, grab your Wheaties and your Gatorade, and we’ll pick up a Big Mac on the way to the ballpark.”
That line, spoken by Stan Podolak (Wayne Knight) to Michael Jordan (His Airness, playing a thinly fictionalized version of himself) is what Space Jam is all about.
Sure, the 1996 animation/live action hybrid is about Jordan helping the Looney Tunes win a game of basketball before they’re all doomed to a lifetime of slavery to an evil, cigar-chomping alien voiced by Danny DeVito, but it’s clear that this budding franchise’s enduring legacy is a testament to good, old-fashioned American capitalism.
Stan’s list of all of the companies that actually endorsed the real-life Jordan at one point or another is one of many winking nods in the movie, which got its start as a 1992 Nike shoes commercial starring Jordan and Bugs Bunny.
Space Jam’s primary product is Jordan himself, who at the time of filming in 1995, was working on going back to the NBA after playing minor league baseball for the White Sox organization. He was the most marketable athlete alive at the time. Warner Bros. was also looking to put up more of a fight against the Disney Renaissance. (“Please. What kind of Mickey Mouse organization would name their team ‘The Ducks?’ Bugs quips.) Enter Space Jam.
“The challenge was to come up with content that had an edgier Warners sensibility, whatever that might be, to distinguish us from and actively competing with Disney Feature for a slice of the animation pie—or more specifically, as I recall from a speech given to us by one of Warners’ CEOs, to ‘fill the shelves’ of Warners company stores with tie-in merchandise. Oh, and make a good movie as well,” Space Jam supervising animator Bruce Woodside said in a 2016 oral history of the movie.
So it’s no secret that Warner Bros. imagined Space Jam as a way to sell merchandise. But just how much merchandise was the question. The tie-ins were inescapable at the time. There were Happy Meal toys. Branded french fry containers from McDonald’s. Shoes, naturally. Space Jam-branded basketballs. Space Jam-branded letterman’s jackets. Trading cards. T-shirts. Piggy banks. Action figures. Pinball machines, video games and all sorts of knicknacks. Hell, the VHS copy of the movie even came with a commemorative coin tucked in the packaging. And then there was the soundtrack, which went platinum six times.
Space Jam’s animators also inserted other commentary about how blatant of a commercial effort the movie was. At one point, Daffy Duck kisses his own ass, which is proudly labeled “Property of Warner Bros. Inc.”; the Tunes first discuss their plight against the film’s villains at a union meeting, a reference to the animator’s union at the time; and Bill Murray’s entire character is a joke about nepotism and commerce. “How did you get here?” Daffy asks Murray. Murray responds: “The producer [Ivan Reitman] is a friend of mine.”
In the end, the merchandising investment paid off. Space Jam the movie made at least $230 million worldwide. But the real money came through the merchandising. Conservative estimates put the total amount of worldwide money generated by Space Jam merch at at least $1.2 billion; other estimates have the money closer to $6 billion. The combined market power of Jordan plus the brand recognition of the Tunes was a hard team to beat.
As LeBron James arrives in Space Jam: A New Legacy, releasing in theaters and HBO Max, it’s clear that this budding franchise is trying to replicate some of that merchandising success. Happy Meal toys featuring James and Bugs and the new Toon Squad are already on sale at McDonald’s. James has a new LeBron 8 Space Jam shoe. Nike has a new clothing and shoe line in support of the movie. Warner has also launched its own shop of merch. There’s a new soundtrack with today’s top artists and a remix of one song from the first movie.
As the trailer points out, it seems Legacy’s primary product is Warner Bros. itself. In this one, James has to go into a computer system to play to get his son back from the evil artificial intelligence Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), who seemingly has a stable of Warner villains at his disposal.
James is a marketable athlete, but he’s not doing this movie as a way to stay in the public eye while he returns to a sport like Jordan was. This is Warner’s way of highlighting all of its existing intellectual property in one place, from Droogs to the Iron Giant to King Kong to the Flinstones to Pennywise to the Joker. Everyone’s got to have a cinematic universe these days, after all. And think of the T-shirt possibilities: Marvin the Martian with the Iron Giant. Bugs Bunny and Fred Flinstone. Sylvester grinning evilly next to Pennywise. The Droogs standing next to Pepe Le Pew (OK, maybe not that one).
Debate all you want about if King James is a better player than Air Jordan, but LeBron is going to have to move a lot of merch in order to get anywhere close to generating the amount of revenue Jordan did with the original Space Jam 25 years ago. However, most of this movie’s economic impact will probably come from merch and tie-ins sold to today’s kids, just as the first installment sold ‘90s babies on basketballs and Toon Squad jerseys. It almost doesn’t matter about the movie’s split-screen distribution model. Sell enough toys, and it’ll all work out.