The result of that balancing act — Space Jam — opened 20 years ago this week. Looking back on the movie, starring Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes gang now, few would have guessed its enduring appeal: part animation, part live action and an alternate explanation of Jordan’s retirement that involved a basketball game against cartoon aliens, the Monstars.
Other pro players — Patrick Ewing, Muggsy Bogues, Charles Barkley — make prominent cameos. Bill Murray’s there, too, for some reason.
Technologically impressive at the time, Space Jam has become a sort of nostalgic, cultural phenomenon. Grown adults wear Space Jam basketball jerseys and pore over the movie’s website (which, yes, is still online in its original form). There are dedicated subreddits for remixes of the soundtrack and anticipation over a sequel (rumoured to be in the works). Nike plans to reissue its namesake shoe. Anniversary screenings hit U.S. theatres this week.
The public agreed with him: The movie earned more than $ 90 million (U.S.) at the domestic box office and $ 230 million worldwide. Merchandising brought in more than $ 1 billion in retail sales. Space Jam remains the highest-grossing basketball movie of all time.
Pairing Jordan with Looney Tunes characters originated with the Nike “Hare Jordan” ad campaign. Jim Riswold, then creative director and partner at Wieden+Kennedy, helped develop the concept after working on the popular commercials that paired Jordan with Spike Lee playing the character Mars Blackmon.
“Hare Jordan” was the Super Bowl’s most talked-about spot in 1992. “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Bugs quips at the end and it was; another “Hare Jordan” commercial followed.
So the impetus for Space Jam, Falk said, was for “Michael to play himself.”
By the mid-’90s, Jordan had become an international icon. Together with Ken Ross (now a CBS executive), Falk pitched a Jordan movie to the major studios. The idea wasn’t fully formed; the script and exact story would be developed later.
It wasn’t an instant sell.
Dan Romanelli, who ran the company’s consumer products division, got a call from Falk, who said Warner Bros. had “turned down an opportunity to do a movie that was with Bugs Bunny, the Looney Tunes,” Romanelli recalled. He responded: “That’s impossible. How can you not do something with Michael Jordan?”
Romanelli also saw the enormous retail potential (like Daffy Duck seeing dollar signs). Such a project would mean plush toys and action figures. “I’ve been wrong about other things, but I felt like with Michael, you just can’t go wrong. He’s gold,” Romanelli said.
“No. Larry’s white,” answers Jordan, referring to Larry Bird (also in the movie).
“Larry’s not white,” Murray improvised. “Larry’s clear.”
Space Jam also had plenty of product placement, years before it became the industry norm. Jordan blazed marketing trails. Gatorade and Wheaties and his other sponsored products are mentioned in the movie. “Everything he did was integrated,” Falk said.
Ross developed the soundtrack, which was instrumental in the movie’s success and lasting appeal. R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” won a Grammy and “Fly Like an Eagle” became one of Seal’s biggest hits. People still remix Quad City DJ’s title track.
The movie promotion included a dedicated website — cutting-edge stuff in 1996.
Jordan did like “the camaraderie of doing it with a bunch of his friends,” Falk added. But when a sequel was offered, he turned it down.
“We got spoiled by doing Space Jam,” Daly, the company’s former chief executive, said. “Space Jam came too easy and became too successful too fast, and we thought, ‘Oh, why not go into the animation business?’ ”
Riswold, the ad maker who helped come up with the Bugs-Jordan pairing, wasn’t a fan of Space Jam. He calls himself a purist; the Bugs on the big screen just wasn’t the one he remembered from his childhood. “It’s a marketing idea first and a movie, maybe ninth.”
But, he added, “That’s OK. It made a lot of people smile and we all know the world could use more smiling.”