Welcome to “THE ART OF MARKETING”, where we analyze the campaigns used to sell films, from those that were successful to the interesting to the ones that failed. Today, on it’s 30th anniversary, we look back into the struggles and successes for Batman.
Released in 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman elevated superheroes into the money making machines that we know and love today via a marketing campaign whose success was so massive it’s legacy still lives on, affecting how movie studios approach blockbusters to this day.
Before getting into the marketing marvel that would later be dubbed “Batmania”, we need to go into its troubled production history for context to grasp how well conceived and successful the campaign was.
Despite 1978’s Superman pushing comic book films to be taken seriously for its use of big budgets, mind blowing (at the time) special effects, Academy Award winning actors and a serious tone, Batman had an uphill battle to get this same respect after 1966’s hugely popular Batman TV show turned the superhero into a joke.
After the show’s cancellation in 1968 due to failing ratings, interest in the character would remain low with poor sales of comics for the 70’s and most of the 80’s.
So on October 3rd, 1979, when young producer and life long fan Michael Uslan purchased the film rights for Batman along with his friend Benjamin Melniker, they were warned that this was equivalent to career suicide because of the properties perception. However, Uslan was convinced that the movie would be a hit if taken back to it’s darker roots rather than the campy style adopted by the Adam West show.
As predicted, every movie studio rejected their proposal citing lost interest in the franchise, only willing to take the project if he included all kinds of BAM!, KAPOW!, WHAM!, weirdly inappropriate relationships between guardians and their adopted “son” and mustachioed Jokers. “Isn’t getting a movie done better than having no movie done?’” Uslan was asked at one point.
The young producer persisted on getting his vision done, declining said offers and finally succeeding in 1980 when Casa Blanca Records executive Peter Guber, known for being the “King of Disco”, was won over by their pitch of a darker Batman movie, who then helped them get financing with Warner Brothers.
But it wouldn’t be until 1985 and roughly nine drafts later, that a young filmmaker and former animator was hired to direct the adaptation: Tim Burton. Luckily Burton’s taste aligned with Uslan and the director ordered a new script which would take The World’s Greatest Detective into darker territory.
With a clear vision in place and pre-production officially beginning after many attempts, now came the most important decision that Burton would have to make in order to start filming: Choose his Batman.
As we’ve already discussed on a previous post, Producer Jon Peters and Burton gave the role to Michael Keaton, an actor who had primarily made a name for himself with comedies, who had also previously worked with Burton on Beetlejuice.
Reactions were not kind.
Either way, Burton was convinced Keaton was the right actor to put on the cape and cowl after witnessing his work on the drama Clean and Sober, believing it was far more important to get the correct person to play Bruce Wayne, not Batman.
On the other end of the spectrum, Jack Nicholson was cast as Batman’s arch nemesis, The Joker, proving to be a highly popular decision with fans. Even Bob Kane, Batman’s co-creator, had been lobbying Nicholson for the role since 1980.
With every element set in place, Batman began filming on October of 1988.
With Burton being known until then for the bizarre comedies Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, fans were understandably sceptical, fearing that Warner Bros. were just going to make another farcical disrespectful adaptation.
To better understand the reasoning behind fans anger, by 1988 Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke had revitalised the comic, providing the DC publication with newfound respect from critics due to their more mature take on the character.
So knowing that audiences had little faith on the project, the production team got to work on changing public perception through two fronts.
First, the marketing team and production designers brilliantly used one of their greatest assets to get off on the right foot and appease fans worries resulted in the creation of one of the most simple, sleek and defining posters of its era with its influence still being felt on teaser posters for major blockbusters.
In fact, the poster was so successful that for the next and final poster they just… did nothing.
The second was to assemble a very rough teaser trailer showing Keaton in action and giving fans a better idea on the tone and feel that Burton was pursuing.
Despite having no music and looking like a first year film school student edited it on Windows Movie Maker in 1995, the trailer was a smash hit with people actually paying for other movies just so they could watch it and then leave the theatre.
The Bat-fans were back on board with Batman.
With audiences now excited for Burton’s film, Warner Bros decided to take advantage of this good will and plastered the Bat-Symbol on everything they could charge money for.
Reportedly, changes were even requested (demanded) by producers so that planned merchandise wouldn’t be affected. For example, the Batmobile had to survive the movie in pristine condition so kids would want to go out and buy their own version and Batman’s gadgets were designed so that plastic replicas could be made as toys.
To expand their reach even more, on mid-February 1989, mega popstar Prince signed a deal to create a concept album based on the film and character. The single “Batdance” was released and became a #1 hit on the Billboard albums chart for six consecutive weeks, raising the hype and expectations surrounding the film as well as popularizing the “Various Artists” soundtracks we see so often nowadays.
For merchandise, Licensing Corporation of America, Warner’s licensing division contracted 300 licenses in order to create more than 100 products.
This may have slightly undermined Burton’s claims that he was looking to make a more serious, mature film as the Bat was being used to sell every type of merchandising ever created by a human being that summer, including although certainly not limited to:
- Bat-Diet Coke
- Bat-Nintendo Videogame
- Bat-toys (so, so many toys)
- Bat-taco Bell
You could turn your head as much as Michael Keaton wearing the rubber suit (i.e. Not at all) the summer of 89′ without going face to face with the Batman in some shape, form or flavor.
It worked. Batman was released on June 23rd and broke the opening weekend record, was the fastest movie to reach $100 million and grossed $411 million dollars worldwide. It would be the highest grossing DC movie until 2008’s The Dark Knight.
However, the film’s marketing push wouldn’t end there as the VHS was released a mere 4 and half months after its premiere, an unheard period of time in that era.
All said and done, the marketing campaign brought in an astounding $500 to $750 million dollars, far above the movie’s Box Office gross of $400 million.
Future Batman instalments would be so dependent on this strategy up until Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy that the sequel Batman Returns, allegedly got Tim Burton fired after McDonald’s was unhappy due to its darker, more violent nature which cause them to receive complaints from parents, leading to the fast food chain refusing to have any more tie ins with Warner Bros unless they read the script and saw the movie first in future deals.
This would then be responsible for Joel Schumacher’s family friendly, colourful and absurd Batman Forever (Better than its reputation and surely future article here) and Batman & Robin (a film where literally every decision was made so the final product could be more “toyetic“), along with the creation of The Dark Knights most fearsome enemy…
But 1989’s Batman financial success was so massive we can still feel its repercussions today, with most modern blockbusters – particularly superhero franchises – adopting its marketing strategies from using simple teaser posters focused on symbols, action figure toy lines, tie ins at fast food restaurants, novels, special soundtracks and so on and so forth.
Despite having all odds stacked against it, Batman was ultimately able to overcome troubled perceptions and bad first impressions with a stellar and smart marketing campaign that helped deliver a smash hit and reshaped the film industry.
- A picture is worth a thousand words… especially if that picture is the Bat-Symbol
- Branding is vital for a success
- It’s never too late or early to fight public perception on your product
- Be confident in your final product
- If all else fails… Be Batman