THE TELEVISION ERA AND THENEW HOLLYWOOD
When the movie industry's postwar collapse caught up with Warner Bros. in 1948, contracts with top stars like Davis, Bogart, and Flynn were phased out, as were many other contract personnel. Conditions became so dire, in fact, that, despite a suspension of production for several months to regroup, the studio still failed to place a single film in the top twenty-five box-office releases in 1949. Deep budget cuts and personnel layoffs offset falling revenues in 1950, when Warner Bros. actually posted net profits of $10.2 million—ironically the highest of any studio that year, and Warner's first-ever finish atop the Hollywood heap. The company continued to struggle in the early 1950s, gradually (and grudgingly) coming to terms with an industry geared to
Warner's move to "bigger" independent movie productions in the 1950s was a matter of necessity, but its venture into telefilm series production evinced the boldness displayed when the company pioneered talkies three decades earlier. In early 1955, Warner's entered a deal with the ABC-TV network to produce an hour-long series, Warner Brothers Presents , designed to expand three of its feature films, Casablanca , Kings Row (1942), and Cheyenne (1947), into rotating series, with the last quarter-hour of each program devoted to promoting the studio and its upcoming movie releases. After the initial (1955–1956) season only Cheyenne remained, becoming a major hit and a watershed in network television's move to studio-produced hour-long telefilm series—especially Westerns, with Warner Bros. Television generating a
Warner's motion picture operation continued to adapt as well, turning out big-budget musical hits in the early 1960s like The Music Man (1962), Gypsy (1962), and My Fair Lady (1964), and then, later in the decade, producing several of the key films in a veritable American new wave—a "director's cinema" that redefined the independent movement and marked yet another significant break with studio tradition. Warner's contribution to the movement was extensive and quite impressive, and it included Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (directed by Mike Nichols, 1966), Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968), The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969), Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970), A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971), Klute (Alan Pakula, 1971), Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972), Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973), and Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973). These auteur films scarcely evinced a consistent studio style, although they did manifest a coherent market strategy and a sustained effort to court a new generation of filmmakers and a younger, hipper, more political and cine-literate audience.
Warner Bros.' changing production and market strategy was directly related to changes in ownership and management. These began when Jack Warner, the last of the original owner-operators, decided to sell his stock to the Canadian company Seven Arts, leading to the studio's brief (1967–1969) incarnation as Warner Brothers-Seven Arts. A severe market slump in 1969 led to another sale, this time to a heavily capitalized, highly diversified conglomerate, Kinney Service Corporation. Kinney's president and CEO, Steve Ross, created Warner Communications Inc. (WCI), which he built over the next two decades into a model media conglomerate, with Warner Bros. as its principal asset. Ross immediately brought in three new top executives to run WCI's movie division: former agent Ted Ashley as chairman and CEO, independent producer John Calley as head of production, and attorney Frank Wells as studio president. In the course of the 1970s, the trio turned massive losses into steady profits, thanks mainly to a few huge hits like The Exorcist (1973), All the President's Men (1976), and Superman (1978), as well as a steady output of more modest successes involving Clint Eastwood (b. 1930), whose partnership with Warner's—mainly via his Malpaso Company—generated literally dozens of hit films in the ensuing decades. Warner's Eastwood hits during the 1970s included Dirty Harry (1971) and its first two sequels, Magnum Force (1973), and The Enforcer (1976); westerns like the Eastwood-directed The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976); and the offbeat Every Which Way But Loose (1978), an action-buddy comedy starring Eastwood and featuring an orangutan, and its sequel, Any Which Way You Can (1980), which were huge box-office hits.
Studio and parent company underwent further changes in the 1980s, as Warner's steadily adapted to the current era of global media conglomerates. Ross began an aggressive campaign to expand WCI's media holdings in the early 1980s, and he also replaced the studio management team with Robert Daly, who became Warner Bros.' chairman and CEO in 1980, and Terry Semel, who was named president in 1981. Daly and Semel took charge of the movie division just as Ross was shifting his focus to WCI's video-game division, Atari, whose fantastic profits led to overly aggressive expansion and, by 1983, record losses for WCI. At that point Ross retrenched, selling Atari and refocusing on more "traditional" media—movies, television, cable, music, and publishing. Soon WCI was back on track, and Warner Bros. resumed its dominant position within the media empire. The studio was generally successful despite it widely diverse output, with the only real consistency coming from Eastwood's male action films, the Superman sequels, and the increasingly inevitable impulse to turn film hits into movie franchises, as with Police Academy (1984), Lethal Weapon (1987), and many others. Moreover, Warner Bros.' evergreen Looney Tunes division—the home of cartoon veterans Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and others, which dated back to the 1930s—was successfully revived in the 1980s, generating additional feature films and cable TV programming, as well as a licensing-and-merchandising operation that by the 1990s fueled a growing chain of Warner Bros. retail stores.