The culture at Warner Bros.
While pursuing my master’s degree in Media and Professional Communications, I took a course in Corporate Culture. One of the assignments in the course required we choose a corporation and write about its culture based on the Arthur W. Page Society’s principles as discussed in “The Authentic Enterprise.” I chose to write about Warner Bros. and its culture from the studio’s beginnings. As a fan and admirer of World War II (WWII) era media, I have always been particularly fond of Warner Bros. as a studio whose productions upheld very high standards that stayed true to the principles of its leaders – particularly during Hollywood’s golden age.
I must add I had to sell my chosen topic to my professor. He wasn’t thrilled I wanted to focus on an historical perspective but I argued I could think of no better example of an “authentic” corporation whose impact continues to influence the national culture as a result of the culture within the company established by its founders. In the end he liked my choice.
Following is my project (shortened, revised version) – a view of the Brothers Warner and the Warner Bros. culture from the perspective of “The Authentic Enterprise.”
Arthur W. Page Society’s “The Authentic Enterprise” examines the “drives and implications of a rapidly changing context for the 21st Century business.” Warner Bros. Inc, (WB), which is the focus of this study, is a company of the 20th Century. It came to fruition during a time when the pressures, trials and tribulations of a corporation were of a much different nature than what is faced by Corporate America today. Despite the differences in business environment, however, Page’s Principles are an ideal way by which to analyze all aspects of a corporate culture, even in yesteryear.
The Page Principles, which emphasize character, humanism, freedom and democracy, are all based on aspects of culture we hold dear in America and have throughout our history. It is not far-fetched then, that any corporation that adheres to these principles would be considered an American institution, regardless of the time in which the corporation came to be. From its inception in the 1920’s, Warner Bros. has been such an American institution as its values and practices have paralleled those of American society.
Arthur Page stated that “a successful corporation must shape its character in concert with the nation’s.” Warner Bros., Inc. did just that. Although the Warner Bros. incorporation preceded Page’s principles by decades, its adherence to the principles makes it an “authentic enterprise” and a pioneer in the forming of the American Corporation.
An American Industry
A study of any of the Hollywood studios would not be complete without first laying a foundation based on the practices that made the collective environment of the entire studio system unique.
Pioneers like Adolph Zukor, who created Paramount Pictures, Marcus Loew of MGM and the Brothers Warner developed a system by which to manufacture, distribute and present popular feature-length movies. Borrowing ideas from other industries like the star system from Vaudeville, and a factory-like system from Ford’s car-making factories they molded these concepts to fit the movie business. The Studio System was born.
Aside from the means of production, and the vertically-integrated business model all studios used, the movie industry itself and its product came to represent Americana – it’s values, beliefs, ideals, heroes, and patterns of behavior – as no other in the 20th Century.
The film industry pioneers, all immigrants as was a great deal of the country during the early part of the century, valued hard work, diligence, loyalty and excellence – values that helped build our country. They were the standard. Today, even with the astounding innovation of Henry Ford (considered a hero and pioneer of American business) and the indisputable influence he had on our culture, America can no longer boast of making the best, most innovative or most attractive cars. Yet, a century after the film industry was born, no one can come close to our movies!
As a medium of mass communication, film has undeniable power and scope. No other form of mass communication has been able to further the American agenda as has the American film. Whether in support or protest, films have made meaningful contributions in shaping public opinion. This was, of course, especially true in the pre-television era. When people invested their time to go to a theater, what they saw on the giant screen meant something. The images – bigger than life – could be nothing, if not true.
It is arguable, also, whether any other medium has shaped opinion about our culture as has film. The world believed the larger than life American who can overcome anything despite the odds or the America where everything and anything is possible. By classic film standards, we are the most innovative, strongest and most righteous of cultures. The right way is the American way. We are a culture that symbolizes truth and justice. This is what movies are made of – it is what we are made of. There is no doubt that what other cultures think of us, how they view us and our way of life has to do with how we’ve acted as a nation through the years. However, the impact of films’ portrayal of all that is American is undeniable. We are the super, superpower – before we came to be it, films said we were it. We believed it and went from there.
Considering all the film industry has offered through the years then, its role in building brand America has been vital. Though the American “brand” is without a doubt going through tough times today, it is from a high pedestal that it falls. It was placed on that pedestal in large part through what we’ve seen of it in film. Not that film depicts the truth. In fact, very few films do. But if there’s one aspect of brand America film has helped build in the last century, it is its promise, the promise of the opportunity to pursue life, liberty and happiness. Mass audiences didn’t get the promise of America from books or from music or American folk art – they got it from our movies.
All of the Hollywood studios contributed to building Brand America. However, one studio stood out above the rest as the teller of truth and a voice for justice. That studio was Warner Bros. The values and ideals of Warner Bros. matched those of American society in a way other studios didn’t. Warner Bros. didn’t simply adhere to the perception of the American dream and place it on a big screen, they showed what it took to make that dream come true and portrayed those Americans for whom the dream didn’t materialize. They remained true to their values and beliefs and their product reflected it.
Following are the Page Principles supporting Warner Bros. and its role as an authentic enterprise. The Page Principles remain a measure of character, the American way.
Tell the Truth
The basic premise of this, the first of Page’s principles, addresses the issue of perception versus reality. Page states that corporations should “provide an accurate picture of the company’s character, ideals and practices.” Any disconnect between the message (words) and the actions taken hurt a corporation’s image. And image is everything.
Although there are many aspects of Warner Bros., Inc. that distinguished it from the other studios, there are two facets of its culture that communicated the company’s true character to all its publics. The first of these is “The Family Business.”
Nepotism existed throughout the Hollywood studio system. But Warner Bros., Inc. was the only true family-run operation. Harry Warner, the eldest and leader, as “natural” order would dictate, was President. Albert (Abe) Warner (the second-eldest) was in charge of all distribution. Next in line was Sam Warner who oversaw all technological issues and advancements (sadly, he died in 1929 on the eve of the opening of a major film milestone and his biggest accomplishment – the talking picture, The Jazz Singer), and Jack L., the youngest, in charge of production. All titles and roles in the corporation were set by their placement in the family, no one questioned it. Harry had the final word on everything. Though unique, the fact that Warner Bros. were actually brothers was not the “truth” part of this principle. The “truth” was that the family ideals permeated through the entire culture of the company.
Employees at Warner Bros. spent a large part of each and every day working for the Brothers Warner. In interviews shown on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) about the studio, former employees, most of whom spent their entire working life there, talked about being encouraged to bring their children to work and that they did so often. Most referred to the studio lot as having a sense of “coming home” when entering the famous gates. From a public relations perspective it was genius. Should a negative story break, these employees were a lot more likely to stick up for their bosses due to the familial environment that was created through this pattern of behavior.
The Warner Bros. product, the films it produced, is another example of the studio’s proclivity toward truth. While other studios showed an idealized America – the glamour and majesty that came to be synonymous with Hollywood – Warner Bros. showed the dark realities of American life. Referred to as “The Dark Studio” and “The Studio with a Personality,” Warner Bros. aimed to educate as well as entertain. During the 1930’s, even in their Busby Berkeley musicals, food lines, stark poverty and the homeless were front and center – the country was in a depression. Featured in most Warner productions were real life worries and troubles, the seedier side of life. The Warner gangster, arguably the studio’s most famous depiction in film, was portrayed as a nearly demented, ruthless hoodlum. When the Production Code demanded films send a clear message of “crime doesn’t pay,” Warner Bros. took it to the extreme with more sadistic endings and cynical views of environmental factors contributing to crime.
Warner Bros. was constantly at odds with the censors on their quest to tell a truer story. They took a political stance, made social commentary and strove to break barriers. Even the Warner Bros. animation, the now legendary Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies cartoons took chances no one else would take. During World War II, Daffy Duck evaded the draft – no one else would go near such a perceived anti-American message. The truth was the American public was in fear of the draft.
Prove it with Action
In 1934, America and the American people were largely ignoring Hitler’s growing threat. Yet, Warner Bros. Inc. ceased business with Germany in protest that year. This was huge. About half of Warner Bros. business was abroad and Germany was their biggest market. They closed their German studio and subsequently all others throughout Europe as the Nazis reached the various nations. Harry Warner also lobbied Congress and the President to put an end to Hitler’s rise to power, despite strong isolationist views and anti-Semitic sentiment throughout the country. Germany’s propaganda minister announced an official boycott of all Warner Bros. pictures because the studio refused to change or delete Jewish names on film credits. Other studios simply changed the Jewish names to pass German censors.
In 1939, Warner Bros. succeeded in producing Confessions of a Nazi Spy, after many attempts at producing anti-Nazi films. Confessions was a milestone film about a real Nazi spy in America. That same year, they donated two Spitfire planes to the British. Hounded by the Senate, they were called to testify for making “pro-war” films in 1941. The charges were dropped a week later, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Having produced more anti-Nazi films than anyone else by the time Americans got involved in the war, Warner Bros. became the propaganda studio and were subsequently considered the most patriotic.
Throughout its history, Warner Bros. continued to stand up for what they believed was right despite popular belief – yet always seemed to find the public’s support. In the thirties they took a definitive stand against chain gangs. The indictment of which, I was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang in 1932, lead to legislative changes in the law.
In the 1950’s they stood up against Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and produced several indictments of their biggest rival – television (something other studios shied away from due to the perceived power of the new medium, even in its infancy). After the Warner Brothers reign, the studio continued the tradition. In the 1960’s and 1970’s (considered by many to be their best decade) they made definitive statements about societal violence, war, and politics – stories other studios simply did not dare tell. Yet, this studio never lost money – money they’ve always put where their mouths are.
Listen to the Customer
For all the reasons mentioned above, the Warner Bros. audience always had interesting fare waiting for them in theaters. This studio offered a clear alternative from the product of the other studios. In all fairness, we cannot discount the fact that, as one of the Big Five studios, WB owned their own theaters. This ensured a certain audience would go see their films if they wanted to go to the local theater. However, had the grim reality of the Warner Bros. stories, or the violence and poverty they depicted bothered the audience they would have not gone to the movies to see their own problems on the screen. What the WB product showed of their audience was that they not only wanted to be entertained, but they wanted to relate. Audiences probably got some sense of relief that they weren’t alone in suffering the hardships of the time. The Warners always gave their audience plenty to relate to.
Manage for Tomorrow
This principle pertains to “generating goodwill and eliminating practices that create difficulties.” There is no need to mention anyone but Harry Warner in this section. All studio moguls were tyrants, it came with the territory. But, by all accounts, Harry Warner was a benevolent tyrant. Harry led with an iron hand but genuinely cared for people. He was the hero of the Warner Bros. culture and the creator of the WB myth.
A frugal man, Harry Warner believed in producing as many films as possible on the lowest budgets possible and making a small profit from each film. Warner Bros. was a feature-making machine. Their production worked like clockwork – faster and more efficient than any of the other studios. As a result, the Warner employees were often overworked. But Harry lead by example, no one worked longer hours than he did.
Harry Warner rewarded loyalty and there was very little turnaround at Warner Bros. He was known to get involved in his employees’ private lives, no matter where they worked on the assembly line. He called doctors, bought medicine for his employees, called hospitals to be sure newborns were doing ok, paid hospital bills and even priced insurance and new homes to distribute the information to anyone who needed it. No doubt some of his motivation was to ensure no one missed a day in production. But it worked.
Harry Warner was the moral center of Warner Bros. He was a very religious and traditional man to whom family and family values were extremely important. He wanted his employees to feel the same. The result was that those who worked for him felt pride and ownership in their work. He was driven by an “ethic of creation” (Deal & Kennedy, p. 43) as opposed to an “ethic of competition.” He resisted advances in cinema, although WB made important advances through the years and often before the other studios as was the case with The Jazz Singer and innovation of talking pictures. Harry also didn’t care about using the most popular stars, instead choosing to tell his stories his way – although, again, his stars were among the most popular with audiences. He was “concerned about building something of value and was sensitive to the needs of the organization.” (Deal & Kennedy, p. 55) Few would consider Harry Warner a “friend,” but any of the WB employees could call him to voice a concern or discuss a personal matter at any time.
Despite Harry’s frugality, Warner Bros. owned the most theaters, owned the biggest lot (still the WB home today), and had the latest and best equipment and lighting, and the most modern work environment available at the time. This, in itself, created a sense of goodwill and pride amongst his employees.
Conduct Public Relations as if the whole company depends on it
Public Relations was a different animal when Harry Warner reigned supreme. There was no 24-hour news cycle and control over stories was attainable (fewer “leaks”). However, the power of perception was something all industry leaders took very seriously, even then.
Because family and the image of Warner Bros. as a family business were so important to Harry, he made sure employees on all levels respected that image. Harry’s biggest problem in this arena was his youngest brother, Jack. Jack was the “immoral” brother and Harry’s cross to bear. He was the only brother who permanently lived among the Hollywood stars, went to their parties, and enjoyed all the excesses of the rich and famous. Jack’s values, and certainly his behavior, were often at odds with the Warner image. He wanted the upper-class sheen of Paramount or MGM, but Warner Bros. was the working-class studio. The extreme to which Harry would go to ensure the Warner image stayed intact had no boundaries. When Jack wanted to divorce his wife to marry his long-time love, the answer was a resounding no. A divorce would stain the family name, the one Harry owned and that also graced his company.
This may be an extreme example by today’s standards. But it certainly illustrates that Harry Warner was well aware of the importance of public perception. From his viewpoint, the public would not buy the family-owned Warner Bros., the studio with a conscience, if one of the Warner Brothers didn’t have value for his family.
Realize a company’s true character is expressed by its people
Here, Page is referring to the importance of employees’ opinions. Since employee relations and views at Warner Bros. have already been discussed, another version of this is worthy of note. That is – the Warner Bros. “star” and what they represented.
The two powerhouse studios had plenty to brag about when it came to their stars. MGM boasted having “more stars than there are in the heavens” and Paramount listed 25 ranking stars, all A-list players, as they were known, to whom they paid top dollar. At its height, Warner Bros. had four big names…
True to the studio’s image, the Warner stars represented the working class. They did not represent Hollywood glamour. They looked like regular people and exhibited raw, real emotions. As with the stories Warner Bros. told, the public could relate to these people. Their public faces meshed with their public ones.
Remain calm, patient and good-humored
Although media pressure and attention wasn’t what it is today during the studio system days, it is also true that the moguls, the leaders of industry had more than their share due to their popularity. Warner Bros. did an exceptional job in relation to the last of Page’s principles, which states that “when a crisis arises, cool heads communicate best.”
There are several examples that illustrate how the Warners practiced this principle. The first was that they kept most disputes and disagreements within the “family.” These were most often the disagreements between Harry and Jack. And Jack did have a penchant for media attention. But Harry’s influence over him was strong enough to keep him at bay – most of the time. If and when Jack ran his mouth, Harry and his media liaisons made sure the response was a mere shrug and a laugh. Jack was not to be taken seriously.
During the many times Harry Warner and his studio were up against censors for the films they produced, the press would write of his plight to corrupt the American people. Audiences went to see his films anyway, there was no need for him to make a fuss. And he didn’t. Instead, he fought quietly, stood his ground and quietly made three films to replace the one with all the attention.
Throughout the many Senate hearings Harry Warner was forced to answer to – during the pre-war years and during the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) years, the press did often write that the Warners were traitors in one way or another. Harry stayed true to his views – during the HUAC hearings he made no public comments. Instead, he chose to remain quiet and loyal to his people. When Jack began to cooperate with the committee, public statements were made that Jack’s views were not those of Warner Bros. nor did he represent them. Intuitively, perhaps, Harry Warner and his media people defused potential crisis throughout the years.
It is doubtful whether Harry Warner ever thought about the long-term effects his business practices would have on the Warner Bros. brand. In fact, he probably didn’t think about “brand” at all. Nor were the Page Principles in his sphere of thought as he went about the day to day operations of his studio. But, oh, what a brand he created! The Warner Bros. pictures of Hollywood’s Golden Age remain among the most interesting and entertaining of the classics. They tell so much about the society during which they were made that they are layered pieces of historic art.
Today, Warner Bros. Entertainment is a small part of the conglomerate that is Time Warner, Inc., its parent company. The movie portion an even smaller part – about 5% of the total corporation. However, as one looks through recent Time Warner press releases and through its webpage, it’s striking to see how much attention is to the Warner library, its releases and its successes – the gems in the Warner Archives. This is all testament to a brand, an American brand, the power of which formed when a pioneer of American business cared about what he did and the people he did it with.
Deal, Terrence & Allen Kennedy. Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. Addison-Wesley, 1982.
Dick, Bernard F. The Star-Spangled Screen: the American World War II Film. 5th. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996.
Gomery, Douglas. The Hollywood Studio System: A History. British Film Institute, 2005.
Page, Arthur W. “Arthur W. Page Society – The Page Principles.” Arthur W. Page Society. 2009. Arthur W. Page Society. 15 Mar 2009 <http://www.awpagesociety.com/site/resources/page_principles/>.
You Must Remember This: The Warner Brothers Story. Dir. Richard Schickel. DVD. Warner Communications,2008
Warner Sperling, Cass. The Brothers Warner. 2nd. Rocklin: University Press of Kentucky, 2008.