A few weeks ago, news broke that the long-rumored sequel to Space Jam had finally gotten the green light from Warner Bros. Set to feature NBA superstar Lebron James—and, one assumes, the usual cast of slightly wrong-sounding Looney Tunes characters—the new installment will try to recreate the box office success of the original while giving James a chance to build off his surprisingly funny turn in 2015’s Trainwreck. For many, this was Just Another Hollywood Reboot, one in a long line of ‘90s remakes meant to squeeze as much money out of a recognizable property as possible.
But I’d like to go on record as saying this is one of the smartest decisions Hollywood has ever made.
Granted, the original Space Jam is a far, far worse experience than you probably remember. I was in the seventh grade when the original film was released; whatever lingering appreciation I had for Space Jam came from the fact that I transferred between middle schools in 1996 and memorized all the words to R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” in a failed attempt to fit in. On re-watch, though, Space Jam is so focused on making the basketball and pop culture references work that it forgets what makes the original Looney Tunes cartoons so appealing. Instead of character-driven animation, we are given sight gags and sexual innuendo aplenty; who exactly thought it would be a good idea to have Bugs lust over the hyper-sexualized Lola Bunny? Or to include a scene where a psychiatrist asks Patrick Ewing if he is still able to maintain an erection? If this film were to be released today, you’d have a hard time justifying anything less than a PG-13 rating.
From a marketing standpoint, though, a new Space Jam movie seems like a slam dunk (I’m so sorry). Remember, the original was little more than an expanded version of a 1993 Nike shoe commercial; that film was always going to be Hollywood’s tail wagging the dog, no matter how many jokes they allowed Bill Murray to make at the NBA’s expense. It’s a format that still works. Recent studies show that youth audiences are more likely to spend money when asked to reflect on past experiences than future events; experts also argue that the best way to engage with millennials is to forego traditional product marketing in favor of sponsored content. All those promoted tweets you see from actors and filmmakers? The target market doesn’t like to be advertised to; they like stories, especially ones that remind them of their past. And the Looney Tunes characters have always had a knack for making commercials look more like Saturday morning cartoons.
By leveraging the Looney Tunes franchise to introduce basketball to new fans, the original Space Jam might just have a case as the most successful piece of sponsored content in entertainment history. And its influence has only grown in the 20 years since its release. In 2013, BuzzFeed published a list of reasons why Space Jam is a “criminally underrated” movie. In 2015, Yahoo Movies put together a history of Space Jam in popular culture; not to be outdone, Uproxx published an exhaustive scouting report for each of the Tune Squad players later that same year. If Warner Bros. is banking on nostalgia to help sell the idea of another cartoon-basketball hybrid, it’s got to be pleased with the enduring fascination with the original film. And it’s not just film fans that fall within this target demographic; a recent survey of sports audiences shows that NBA fans are the youngest in the industry, with 43 percent falling under the age of 35, corresponding almost perfectly to that golden 18-34 age range.
So the next time someone makes a joke about their lack of interest in a Space Jam sequel, just remind them that they’ll be eating those words come opening weekend. The original Space Jam dared to dream that a Nike commercial could be the basis for a blockbuster film; the inmates may be running the asylum, but they’ve managed to turn a tidy little profit, and visiting hours are more popular than ever.