What's the first thing you think of when you hear the name Warner Brothers? Bugs Bunny? Harry Potter? Hobbits? Whatever image enters your noggin, we're willing to bet it's not gangsters. In the 21st century, Warner Brothers has become most associated with big, fantastical family films; you know, the type you can build entire theme parks around.
But, here's the thing: Back in the 1930s, when Prohibition was in full swing and hoods were making headlines, Warner Brothers was ground zero for gangster flicks. America had become straight-up fascinated by street gangs, and the forward-thinking folks at Warner Brothers were primed to give the people what they wanted. "You had films like Public Enemy, which was Warner Brothers with James Cagney, and Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson, [which was] also Warner Brothers," explains film scholar John McCarty. "The three great gangster stars that we remember—Robinson, Cagney, and [Humphrey] Bogart—were all Warner Brothers stars. Warner Brothers was the gangster film studio." (Source)
Mad About the Mob
Fast-forward to 1990.
America? Still in love with the mob. But Goodfellas? Not so much—at least, not initially. According to the BBC's Tom Brook, "[…] the initial response from the public at studio test screenings was ominous: there were reports of people walking out and the audience becoming agitated as they watched this sometimes harrowing story of a real-life New York mobster" (source). While America may have been mad about the mob, Goodfellas' violent content simply made them mad at the mob.
"The previews were scary," recalls executive producer Barbara De Fina. "By the time Spider gets killed, the audience would get angry. The audience wanted to go back to having fun. The movie was taking them someplace they weren't sure they wanted to go" (source). According to another executive producer, one disastrous screening even resulted in the film's crew hiding at a nearby bowling alley in order to avoid the enraged audience.
The execs at Warner Brothers were equally stunned by the film's brutal reception. "We all were a little depressed," confesses the studio's former chairman, Bob Daly. "But we also knew that it was a good movie." Daly battled the film ratings board to get Goodfellas into theaters, and he won. (Source)
"Bob just wore the rating agency down," explains Nicholas Pileggi, the film's co-writer. "[...] we were supposed to open in maybe 2,000 movie theaters. We opened in about 1,000. And they can put your movie in an A theater or they can put it in a B theater with fewer seats, a grungier place. They really thought they had a bomb" (source). So it was a small, sticky-floored victory but a victory nonetheless.
Butts were put in seats.
The WB Gets the Last Laugh
In spite of its humble, grungy, bowling ball-filled beginnings, Goodfellas went on to be a massive success for Warner Brothers. As evidenced by its 96 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, critics adored the stylish, exciting tale of a Brooklyn gang's rise and fall. Oscar voters did, too. The movie was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Joe Pesci brought home the Best Supporting Actor statuette for his portrayal of Tommy DeVito—ironically, the most violent character in the film.
When all was said and done, the studio—and their faith in Goodfellas—prevailed. Moviegoers came around in the end. "Goodfellas has the […] understanding that even as the audience watches on with horror, there's some tiny part of them that has completely surrendered to the madness and the fun," writes The Atlantic's David Sims. "That was Goodfellas's original genius and, even in retrospect, it seems impossible to equal" (source).
And nobody understood Goodfellas' brilliance better than the film's subject, the real Henry Hill. According to ShortList.com, Hill was so stoked about the film that, after it premiered, he got booted from the FBI's Witness Protection Program because he couldn't stop bragging that Goodfellas was all about him—blowing his cover.