From Fox to Universal, most of the major Hollywood studios have got an opening fanfare – but where do they all come from? Glad you asked.
There’s a good gag in a 2011 episode of Family Guy about the preponderance of arty studio logos before a movie making it unclear whether a film has started or you’re just watching a vanity card for ‘Arriving Flight Productions’ or ‘Panting Man’s Wounded Shoulder Films’. Anyone might think that studio executives are treating them as competitively as the fancy business cards in American Psycho.
But as studio intros have grown more elaborate over time, their musical accompaniments have developed too. With the major studios, you’ll have heard many of them countless times before all kinds of movies, and evidently, it’s an important part of Hollywood branding.
Indeed, we recently learned (courtesy of an interview with Todd Yellin on the Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast) that Netflix turned to Hans Zimmer (of Going For Gold fame!) to extend the ‘ta-dum’ opening sound for the longer ident that appeared before the theatrical runs of Oscar contenders The Irishman and Marriage Story. As an emerging major studio, even Netflix has to get its intro in order.
Then again, by the same token, MGM has got by on the not-especially-melodic roaring of Leo the Lion, the mascot who has been played by several different lions in live-action and finally recreated in 3D for the ident that debuted on Skyfall in 2012.
There’s a lot more going on, musically speaking, for other studios’ opening fanfares, but if nothing else, this subject is a treasure trove of movie geek trivia…
20th Century Studios (nee Fox)
Arguably the most famous and certainly the most enduring of the studio fanfares, the 20th Century Fox theme was composed in 1933 by Alfred Newman, who later became the head of the studio’s music department. Newman also produced an extended version of the track to accommodate Cinemascope logos from 1953 onward, and it’s this extended version that became iconic when George Lucas revived it for 1977’s Star Wars.
Composer John Williams took this overture and ran with it, composing the iconic main title in the same key, and cementing Newman’s track as part of the saga’s musical language. By 1994, Fox had redesigned its logo animation to accommodate the extended version too, panning from above the monument to the usual framing.
When Disney acquired LucasFilm in 2012, the Fox logo and fanfare were removed from the beginning of Star Wars reissues, much to the umbrage of fans. The House of Mouse later acquired Fox outright but has continued using the opening logo and theme on Fox releases it’s distributed, including 2020’s The Call Of The Wild, which debuted the new ’20th Century Studios’ branding. Expect to hear the fanfare on future releases distributed under this banner, including The New Mutants, Death On The Nile, and Free Guy.
It’s been around in some form or another for almost 80 years, but we’ve yet to see a non-Star Wars film make it their own better than The Simpsons Movie, which scores a good laugh in its first 10 seconds when Ralph Wiggum pops out of the zero in the Monument logo and sings along.
As for Disney itself, the studio didn’t run a traditional logo sequence in front of its films for a long, long time. Up until 1985, most films opened with a ‘Walt Disney Presents’ credit in their opening titles rather than using a bumper sequence or title card like the other studios. But as these sequences have developed over time, the Mouse has joined in too.
The castle from Cinderella forms the basis for the Magic Castle logo, which is usually accompanied by a flute arrangement of ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ from 1940’s Pinocchio. Composed by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington, the song is used as a standard for Disney across various operations, even so far as the company’s cruise line ships using the first seven notes as a horn signal.
The current logo, which integrates an animated magic kingdom before panning up to reveal the castle with fireworks going off as a grander, more orchestral version of Jiminy Cricket’s ditty plays, debuted before 2006’s Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. It currently appears in front of most of Disney’s live-action and animated output, including home entertainment reissues.
The big exceptions are films produced by LucasFilm, which feature a silver logo and a Star Wars-y sting, and Marvel Studios, which introduced a more elaborate 3D-animated version of the comic art flipbook logo sequence scored by Brian Tyler. This first appeared before 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, on which Tyler served as the composer, before becoming even more intricate and monumental (it’s the only intro that we know of that includes text from screenplays!) from 2016’s Doctor Strange onwards.
Nicknamed the Majestic Mountain, the Paramount logo has been constant since the studio’s inception in 1912. For much of the first century of its history, the logo sequence was backed by one version of another of ‘Paramount On Parade’. Originally composed for the 1930 revue of the same name, the march was used on the studio’s newsreels and promotional films.
With various other arrangements of the instrumental featuring over the years, this standard was used up until, as far as we know, 1987’s Fatal Attraction. But over the next couple of decades, the logo was more often than not either silent or backed by the film’s opening score.
Ahead of the studio’s 100th anniversary in 2012, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol composer Michael Giacchino was selected to compose a new fanfare. Debuting at the top of the fourth Mission movie in December 2011, this theme starts with light strings before building into a more majestic and mountainous finish.
Warner Bros Pictures
Over the course of the studio’s history, the Warner Bros shield has most often appeared over the opening score of the film, rather than a specific fanfare. This lends itself nicely to Warner’s reputation as a filmmaker’s studio, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t occasionally gone for a more attention-grabbing sequence.
Max Steiner’s Warner Bros fanfare debuted in 1937, the same year as Newman’s Fox theme, and appeared before various films up until the mid-1970s. It’s notably used on films ranging from Casablanca to Gremlins. Older readers may also remember the synthesised rendition of this orchestral piece from the Warner Home Video logo that appeared at the start of VHS tapes from 1985 to 1997.
A new fanfare was chosen after the studio’s 75th anniversary rebrand in 1998, and speaking of Casablanca, a piano arrangement of ‘As Time Goes By’, which was originally composed by Herman Hupfeld but famously performed by Dooley Wilson’s Sam in the classic romantic drama, was the basis for it. Starting with eight piano notes, the fanfare swells as the CG animation pans from a golden image of the Warner movie lot in Burbank to the familiar shield.
In the age of franchises, there have been more stylised but integrated uses of the WB logo, most notably in the openings of the Matrix and Harry Potter films, but that’s fallen off a bit in recent years, and the ‘As Time Goes By’ bumper still appears on various films distributed by the studio.
Sony (Columbia and TriStar)
Since 2015, movies distributed by Sony’s filmmaking subsidiaries Columbia and TriStar have started with the same graphic as the electronics giant’s TV adverts, accompanied by a single piano note, before segueing into the more iconic images of the torch lady and the Pegasus, respectively, on the same cloudy backdrop.
As for the bumpers, the torch lady is most often heard with an original tune from advertising composer Jonathan Elias, (the man behind MTV’s Moon Landing sequence and Yahoo’s yodel). Introduced in 1993, this track includes variations ranging between orchestras or synthesisers and sometimes both at the same time. TriStar’s logo got a fully animated upgrade in the same year, with Oscar-nominated composer Dave Grusin providing its fanfare. Of the two, the TriStar logo is far lesser seen than Columbia, but it got a similar revamp in 2015 for Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk.
While we’re on the subject, our favourite variation of Columbia’s logo comes before Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, which sees the torch lady gets wiped out by a giant falling banana peel, before cutting to the very generous possessive credit “A film by a lot of people”. We’ll always love that movie for that.
Moving on to a couple of the more recently established studios, DreamWorks Pictures was founded in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. Of the three, it was Spielberg who was pushing for a computer-generated intro like the other studios had, and who conceived the idea of the image of a boy fishing on the moon.
The orchestral score for the opening sequence, which first appeared before 1997’s The Peacemaker, was composed by none other than Spielberg regular John Williams. Over time, the studio has continued under co-production deals with other studios, so this modern fanfare heard far less frequently nowadays.
On the other hand, the DreamWorks Animation version of the moon-boy logo has typically used an arrangement of ‘Fairytale’, composed by Harry Gregson-Williams for the score of 2001’s Shrek. In another case of a rebrand after an acquisition, the animation studio’s new ident, with a new fanfare by John Powell, debuted before 2019’s How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.
Lionsgate is the newest of the major studios and nowadays, as discussed in a previous episode of the Film Stories podcast, it’s very much the house that The Hunger Games built. Named after a bridge in Vancouver, the studio was founded in 1997 and was variously known as Lion’s Gate Films or LGF for short before becoming Lionsgate.
It wasn’t until 2005 that the studio introduced a full animated logo sequence, starting with the inner workings of a lock, panning out to reveal a gate that opens onto a bright sky and the studio name. This version comes with its own majestic fanfare, but horror and action fans will likely remember this logo sequence in its more rugged incarnation, where the workings clanked more and the sky was fiery and dark instead.
The current, crisper sequence was introduced in April 2013 and was actually first seen in the teaser trailer for the first Hunger Games sequel, Catching Fire. Focusing more on the lion than the gate, this one zooms outwards from a leonine constellation while composer Jason Johnson’s original fanfare plays over it. Fair play to them for effectively differentiating themselves from the other lion studio.
Saving the best for last, we come to the Universal Pictures fanfare. Before we get to the dramatic, hummable, and endlessly flexible motif that we know and love today, there have been a fair few other fanfares playing around the globe logo since the sound era of cinema began.
The studio’s first fanfare was a bombastic number composed by Jimmy McHugh – as well as being heard before several classics, this fanfare was remixed for the retro logo before Carl Reiner’s Golden Age Hollywood spoof Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Further past logos appeared in a medley throughout the studio’s 75th anniversary celebration in 1990, before segueing into an impressive model shot with an original backing by composer James Horner.
The current fanfare was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, and it debuted before 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park, along with the first computer-generated version of the globe logo. It was rearranged in an even more insistent orchestration by Brian Tyler (him again!) for the studio’s centennial rebrand.
This one’s a favourite not just because of how memorable it is, but also for all the memorable parodies we’ve heard in recent years, including acapella performances by characters from the Pitch Perfect and Minions franchises and a halting EDM remix in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Then again, there’s no more fitting tribute than the 8-bit rendition that opens Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, later followed by the fully intact version that introduces Chris Evans’ Lucas Lee in his neck-cracking, skateboarding, movie-star arrival. Even if Wright didn’t put so much work into his music choices, there’s really no other fanfare that would do.
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