100 Years of Warner Bros.: A Deep Dive Into Studio History

Full publicity shot of the four Warner brothers in 1922. From left: Sam Warner, Harry Warner, Jack L. Warner, and Albert Warner. Courtesy of Warner Bros./Max.

Filmmaker Leslie Iwerks makes the deep dive into Warner Bros. history in four documentary specials that comprise 100 Years of Warner Bros.

The first two specials just premiered during the Cannes Film Festival. There’s so much studio history but there’s only so much film that one can fit into a what is basically a four-part documentary. While the studio refers to 100 Years of Warner Bros. as being four different documentary specials, it feels like a four-part documentary. As I was writing my review, both IMDb and Letterboxd listed it as being one documentary. That’s probably more or less the fault of Cannes for combining the first two specials into one longer film. Rotten Tomatoes lists four different pages. But still, Iwerks and the editors have their work cut out here with choosing which clips to use. It’s a rather dauting task when there’s 100 years of history to choose from.

100 Years of Warner Bros. features four different parts:

  • The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of
    • The first part focuses on the founding through the historic sale.
  • Clint, Kubrick, and Kryptonite
    • The second part focuses on the 1960s and 1970s with a lot of groundbreaking projects.
  • Heroes, Villains, and Friends
    • The third part takes us into the 1980s and 1990s, where the focus isn’t just on the groundbreaking blockbusters but the historic mergers.
  • Wizarding World and The Big Bang
    • You’ve Got Mail! Remember AOL Time Warner? This fourth and final part takes audiences from one merger all the way to present day with Warner Bros. Discovery. It also includes a film franchise based on novels by a transphobic bigot.

They all focus on different aspects of the company’s history. Regardless, they work best when you consider them as a four-part documentary rather than four individual documentary specials. The screener site even refers to them as four parts rather than four different specials. As such, I’m treating this as one singular four-part documentary. Even with the way the fourth part wraps up, it recalls some of what we see in the first three parts.

L-R: Harry Warner, Jack L. Warner, Sam Warner, and Albert Warner, circa 1926, aka the Warner Brothers, Warner Bros.
L-R: Harry Warner, Jack L. Warner, Sam Warner, and Albert Warner, circa 1926. Courtesy of Warner Bros./Max.

If not for Benjamin Warner wanting a better life for his family, Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner might not have founded the studio. Moreover, Sam’s pioneering efforts would help in bringing sound to the screen. Unfortunately, none of the brothers would attend the premiere in New York because of Sam’s tragic passing. If Sam doesn’t die, there’s no telling in how things would play out into the 1960s. Would Jack betray his brother after selling the company? I honestly do not know. This is one of those what-if scenarios that would drastically change Hollywood history if things were different. But as we all know. Jack’s betrayal would bring Harry’s heart.

Iwerks doesn’t just limit the documentary to being just about the studio’s history in film and TV. There’s also a segment on Atari. The game company’s failure led to Warner Bros losing millions upon millions in the 1980s. If Atari doesn’t fail, maybe Warner Communications might not have merged with Time, Inc. to become Time Warner. The mergers are such a big part of the company’s history that this film would be incomplete without discussing them. The big thing about the Time, Inc. merger is that it eventually brought the Warner Bros. classic film library back home following the Turner Broadcasting System purchase in 1996. It’s the reason why Warner Bros. owns the MGM films released before 1986.

The 2000s brought us AOL Time Warner–one of the worst mergers ever. While the studio had no shortage of blockbusters during this time (Christopher Nolan! Peter Jackson!), it’s the television properties that would be prosperous for the studio. WB Television produced the likes of Friends, Gilmore Girls, Veronica Mars, ER, The West Wing, and The Big Bang Theory, to name a few. ER would launch George Clooney’s career. After five years, he made the transition to film, which saw him star in Batman and Robin. The film was savaged but Clooney rebounded with the Ocean’s trilogy, The Perfect Storm, Michael Clayton, among others. Say what you will about Batman and Robin but the 1997 movie was one of those films where I knew I was transgender but didn’t have words to express it at the time and so I repressed.

Clooney on blockbusters and non-blockbusters:

“To see good films on the big screen–the kind of films that are not guaranteed to make it, it’s very difficult. And I don’t want to crap on the tentpole films because I enjoy them and I actually think they’re good for us. But you can’t be that at the expense of the films that…that mark you and I’m hopeful that those will still find their way.

While Batman and Robin practically killed the franchise, it was Christopher Nolan who brought Batman back in Batman Begins. This was just a few years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe came to the screen. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy remains one of the best damn trilogies in cinematic history. In a perfect world, The Dark Knight would have won Best Picture. Nolan capped the trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan would also release Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk, and Tenet with Warner Bros.

Through both present-day and archival interviews, Iwerks manages to get the full Warner Bros. story. This includes interviews with directors, actors, executives, journalists and historians. No studio documentary would be complete with film critic/historian Leonard Maltin. Given the many classic films in the studio’s history, this documentary would not be complete with featuring TCM hosts. Ben Mankiewicz, Eddie Muller, and Jacqueline Stewart are among the interview subjects.

If you’ve been reading my site for a few years, you already know that I’ve written plenty about Warner Bros. and the studio’s founding. This comes in the form of reading books, including both book and documentary versions of The Brothers Warner during the pandemic. Most recently, I spoke to filmmaker Gregory Orr about Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul. In the meantime, the official centennial book by Mark Viera, Warner Bros.: 100 Years of Storytelling, is due out in stores on May 30. Later this year, the University Press of Kentucky will publish The Warner Brothers by Hollywood Hates Hitler! author Chris Yogerst.

Beautifully narrated by Morgan Freeman, 100 Years of Warner Bros. is a must-watch four-part documentary that takes audiences behind the scenes of the studio’s history.

DIRECTOR: Leslie Iwerks
NARRATOR: Morgan Freeman
FEATURING: Kim Basinger, Candice Bergen, Linda Blair, Orlando Bloom, Quinta Brunson, LeVar Burton, Tim Burton, Lynda Carter, Jon M. Chu, George Clooney, Jacqueline Coley, Chris Columbus, Kevin Costner, Alfonso Cuarón, Bob Daly, Ellen DeGeneres, Robert De Niro, Ernest Dickerson, Clint Eastwood, Toby Emmerich, William Friedkin, Gal Gadot, Andy Garcia, Tony Gilroy, Alan Horn, Ron Howard, Ke Huy Quan, Patty Jenkins, Harvey Keitel, Linda Lavin, Chuck Lorre, Baz Luhrmann, Leonard Maltin, Ben Mankiewicz, Barry Meyer, Matthew Modine, Eddie Muller, Gregory Nava, Christopher Nolan, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Orr, Jesse Palmer, Todd Phillips, Daniel Radcliffe, Keanu Reeves, Alan K. Rode, Peter Roth, Charles Roven, Michael Schneider, Martin Scorsese, Jacqueline Stewart, Oliver Stone, Emma Thomas, Cass Warner, John Wells, Oprah Winfrey, Constance Wu

Max will premiere the first two parts of 100 Years of Warner Bros. on May 25, 2023. The second two parts will be released on June 1, 2023. Grade: 5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.