Could That Be All, Folks? Looney Tunes Whiff for Bros.

“Bugs Bunny appeals to the rebel in all of us,” Mel Blanc, the wisecracking wabbit’s voice for 49 years, once said. “Everybody loves a winner, and Bugs Bunny always wins.” Seventy-five years can take its toll, however, and as much as Bugs continues to outsmart his many wily challengers, he may not be able to outwit his most diligent competitor, his earlier self.

By the end of 2001, Warner Brothers had witnessed a sharp decline in demand for the Looney Tunes brand, forcing it to close 140 company stores-70 in that year alone.

“While the Tunes have never been idle, they may not have been as active as they could have been in the past few years,” said Brad Pell, executive vice president of domestic marketing for Warner Bros., in a recent press release entitled ” Looney Tunes Taking on 21st Century.” “The time is right to reinvigorate the brand and aggressively push it front and center.”

The recent release of Looney Tunes: Back in Action , a full-length live-action film featuring some of the 60-year-old characters hauled out of retirement in the Old Toon Actors’ Home, however, is suffering from the one thing Bugs never showed, a lack of guile. In its opening weekend, the movie raked in a paltry $9.5 million. It ranked fifth overall in box-office take, but more important, third behind Disney’s Brother Bear , in its third weekend, and New Line’s Elf , in its second. Last weekend, it had a per-screen average of $1,452-admirable perhaps for the fifth week of The Human Stain , but not for a $100 million–plus “tent-pole” release in its second week.

“The only reason that this Bugs Bunny movie actually, finally got made was because Bugs Bunny is dead. It’s dead as a license,” Kyle Baker, a cartoonist and uncredited writer on the film, said. “My kids don’t care about Humphrey Bogart jokes. If Clark Gable walks in …. ” Mr. Baker threw up hands and intoned “Oooh!” mockingly. “They want Powerpuff Girls or Scooby-Doo or SpongeBob,” he continued. “They just don’t care about Bugs Bunny.”

The film was supposed to refresh the brand name, much like its predecessor, Space Jam , did in the mid-90′s. But without leaders who could match the late, great animators Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Robert McKimson or their much-mocked cartoon patriarch, Leon Schlesinger (the boss of Warners’ Termite Alley), the film started a slow sink into the muck of the holiday box-office competition. With references to Psycho (1960), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), James Bond and Marilyn Monroe, not to mention director Joe Dante’s own Gremlins (1984), the film played more like a prequel to Airplane than a movie for the SpongeBob demographic. Kids barely know who Barney is anymore, let alone Marilyn; they may not even have known who Marilyn was back then. Looney Tunes: Back in Action has left Warner Bros. in traction.

It’s the Godfather III of Looney Tunes projects. It will make money, but you can almost hear Bugs say: Just when I t’ink I’m out, they keep pulling me back in, Doc . Paradoxically, the old characters’ fates are now in the hands of one the most contemporary of trends in movies-cross-brand marketing. By May of this year, Warner Bros. had already secured ad tie-ins for the film with General Mills, Wendy’s, Sprint and Electronic Arts. Wendy’s plastered the Looney Tunes characters on kid’s meals; Electronic Arts has released an eponymous video game. And Sprint-whose burgeoning partnership with the studio in part caused Warner Bros. to appoint a vice president in its online department to oversee mobile content production, licensing and marketing initiatives-has released polyphonic ring tones, images and games based on the characters. On top of that, two new Looney Tunes cartoon series were recently unveiled on Cartoon Network; Mattel will release, by Christmas, “a skill and action game” featuring the Tazmanian Devil; and Scholastic and Dalmation Press are publishing nine books in association with the movie. Moreover, the film itself is filled with so much product placement that it makes The Italian Job look like an art-house film.

This style of marketing is based on a precedent set by Space Jam , which starred Michael Jordan in his cinematic debut and grossed $230.5 million worldwide. But that film could have turned a profit on its ancillary investments alone. Its soundtrack, fueled by R. Kelly’s anthem “I Believe I Can Fly,” sold over 4.7 million copies. Before the film was even released in 1996, Warner Bros. had secured an estimated $50 million dollars in ad support from corporate sponsors like McDonald’s, General Mills and Kraft General Foods. Moreover, Warner Bros. handled the manufacturing of the bulk of the Space Jam toys, selling them through more than 100 domestic and 150 international merchandising partners.

The challenge that now faces Warner Bros. is to keep the awareness of Bugs and Co. up while box-office receipts continue to slide. Coincidentally, the answer to this problem presented itself two years ago, when the film had yet to be pitched. When Larry Doyle, the film’s executive producer and only credited writer, first learned of the studio’s interest in refreshing the Looney Tunes brand, he pitched an idea that involved resurrecting theatrical shorts, the cartoon’s original medium.

The Warner Bros. “brand identity has fallen off the map,” Mr. Doyle said on the phone. “These shorts could more easily bring back their brand identity, because it is easier to duplicate the success of the shorts than it is to make a great movie with those characters.”

Mr. Doyle left the production in February 2003, after his contract was not renewed. He left behind a stable of theatrical shorts created in a program under his direction. The program, before it was terminated toward the end of last year, produced eight completed shorts, and 14 were in various stages of completion. Only one has been released, “Whizzard of Ow,” but only in three theaters nationwide and in Wal-Mart stores as part of a large promotion.

“The fact of the matter is, it’s an incredibly valuable creative property for us,” said a Warner Bros. spokesperson. “The Looney Tunes is part of our heritage which we take very seriously. We created a couple of interesting creative properties, and we needed to do everything that intelligent people would do to make an intelligent decision as to the best way to market, release and distribute them.”

The rest of the shorts that have been chosen for release are slated to bow next year. “Museum Scream,” a Sylvester and Tweedy romp in a museum, and “Cock-a-Doodle Duel,” in which Foghorn Leghorn fights a genetically mutated rooster for hen-house supremacy, are being considered for the March 26 release of Scooby-Doo 2 . “My Generation G-G-Gap,” in which Porky Pig freaks out when he learns that his daughter is going backstage at a rock concert, is being considered for the summer release of A Cinderella Story , a Hilary Duff vehicle. And New York Minute , an Olsen twins special, and Shadows , an action-adventure pic, will have toons in front of them as well. The thinking, on the studio’s end, is that the shorts will build upon the momentum generated by the film and hopefully form a bridge between Back in Action and its sequel.

The question, however, becomes: Will the shorts fall short of the dizzy, topical brilliance that the times and the cartoons demand, the kind once achieved by Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Tex Avery et al.?

According to Mr. Doyle, the answer is likely yes.

“They tinkered with [the shorts] a lot after I left, and didn’t make anything that I would characterize as a good change,” Mr. Doyle said. “They made a bunch of changes [like] taking out some adult humor, taking out or changing jokes that they thought people wouldn’t get-too smart or too weird. I think they just got really conservative.”

The changes can be attributed to the fact that the writers had to find a balance between being faithful to Looney Tunes’ classic mannerisms, while remaining faithful to their untethered spirit in taking on contemporary culture. But the new features were made to be marketed to kids supposedly indoctrinated to Bugs by Saturday-morning cartoons, yet they are still making the same old references that they were when they were being written for Eisenhower-era moviegoers. The goal, therefore, was to update the cartoon for a new generation of kids.

For as Back In Action , and even Space Jam , seemed to forget, Looney Tunes were intrinsic political and artistic satires. The writers on the film had to find a balance between being faithful to the spirit of the old Looney Tunes cartoons, by copying some of the old classic dialogue and mannerisms, while remaining faithful to their supremely irreverent take on contemporary culture. And Bugs Bunny, with his Brooklyn attitude and cool, represented the same idiosyncratic New York grit that peaked during World War II, but has come to define the city in the wake of Sept. 11.

This understanding is perhaps what prompted Mr. Baker to come up with ideas for shorts like “Afghanistan Sam,” with Yosemite Sam as an Osama bin Laden–like terrorist and Bugs Bunny “kicking his ass,” or another short entitled “Wile E. Coyote Suicide Bomber.” These ideas were never fully realized. But they are, it seems, more in the spirit of the old Bugs Bunny, who once told Hermann Goering to “Watch yer blood pressure, chubby!” in the cartoon “Herr Meets Hare.”

This kind of political banter-the staple of the Looney Tunes of yore-does not bode well for securing a place in today’s marketplace. For all the falling anvils and Steve Martin’s gyrations trying to look like Rick Moranis, nothing of the old savvy anarchy appears in Looney Tunes: Back in Action , and the box office sniffed it out, proving that the moviegoing audience-which for decades responded to Bugs’ hipness and Daffy’s insanity-knew the difference and showed it with their wallets.