Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Eternal Cartoon Website

In the mid 1990s, Warner Bros. Feature Animation released its first ... and most successful ... feature. It was a hybrid specimen named Space Jam, and a website was created to help promote it. ...

... The Space Jam website didn't exactly blow up online when it was launched, but studio execs also didn't care. The film raked in just over $90 million by the end of its theatrical run in North America, as well as another $140 million or so overseas. It remains, to this day, the highest-grossing basketball movie ever made. Jordan and Bugs had carried the day and the site was soon forgotten, just another relic of an evolutionary moment in early web design, when code that couldn't load fast enough through a 56K modem wasn't code worth writing.

The site lay more-or-less dormant for the next 14 years. But that changed for good in late 2010, when the Internet, exponentially bigger than it was in 1996, rediscovered the site – almost entirely unchanged from its initial launch. It was reborn as a viral sensation, the web's equivalent of a recently discovered cave painting. We laughed at the site because we couldn't believe anything was ever designed this way, but also because it still existed. It remains one of the most faithful living documents of early web design that anyone can access online.

Today, the Space Jam site's popularity has outlived almost everything to which it has been connected. The Fifth Avenue store shuttered in 2001. Both stars of the movie's stars made forgettable exits in 2003 – Jordan with the Washington Wizards, Bugs with Looney Tunes: Back in Action. And every person directly associated with the site's creation has now left the studio.

But the site lives on, aging for 19 years but free from influence, to our enduring delight. ...

Space Jam was born out of chaos ... and more than a bit of desperation.

In the middle 1990s, Warner Bros. set up a new animation division to compete with Disney's feature unit. The studio was headquartered on Brand Boulevard in Glendale, and had a rocky beginning. The facility had a sizable staff developing a number of projects, most of which studio chief Bob Daly was less than totally thrilled.

One project after another was reviewed by Daly, then rejected for being not quite right. People were sitting around collecting large salaries and twiddling their thumbs. Morale was sagging. Then seemingly out of nowhere, Ivan Reitman (producer/director of Ghostbusters and a host of other comedy features) brought in Space Jam a project developed under his Northern Lights shingle.

The picture got a greenlight from Warners and a release date of November 15, 1996. Ivan R. was slow reviewing designs and color setups, but new studio head Max Howard (fresh from Disney) understood that the production had to kick into high gear if it was going to hit its release date, less than a year away.

And all of a sudden, things got moving. Multiple studios were set up in Glendale, Sherman Oaks, and outside the country. Crews were working six and seven day weeks, month after month. People were sleeping under their desks in Sherman Oaks and Glendale; additional sub-contracting studios clambered above to get the work done. Space Jam ultimately made its release date, but it was a close thing. The movie did good business statewide and performed well overseas. making the WB a nice profit.

SJ was really the last hand-drawn hybrid film of its type that made good money. Cool World from Ralph Bakshi was a flop, even with Brad Pitt, and the Bugs Bunny followup Back In Action under-performed at the box office, despite energetic direction of Bugs and the gang by Eric Goldberg.

Today Space Jam (the movie) is a fading memory of the way things were nineteen years ago, when hand-drawn animation still had punch at the box office, so it's a good thing that Space Jam (the internet address) enjoys a robust after-life.


Christopher Sobieniak said...

At least you gave us your two cents over it's production history. I never did see it on the big screen like I did with "Back in Action" (which I wanted to like, but the writing was weak). Space Jam will still have it's fans within a certain generation of 90's kids who grew up with it. I'm only surprised someone at Warners hadn't dropped that website by now.

And all of a sudden, things got moving. Multiple studios were set up in Glendale, Sherman Oaks, and outside the country.

I recall one of those studios resided in my home state (the one called Character Builders near Columbus, OH). I learned that in an issue of Animation Magazine nearly 20 years ago as well.

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