Hollywood History returns to Last Movie Outpost and this time we travel back to a time still fresh in our minds, but that is unbelievably 33 years ago! A summer transformed. The Summer Of The Bat. When the world was gripped by Batmania.

Most of us who are the type of person who hangs out at a website like this, and is of a certain age, will remember that summer and, in particular, our own journey through it. What most people won’t really remember is a lot of the context, the behind the scenes wrangling and how the whole thing was far, far from certain as a success. Once again, Hollywood History will take you through it all.

Batmania

Batman Defeated

What most people don’t realise is that comics, and superheroes in general, were in the doldrums. Batman was particularly suffering.

The Batman TV show had been a hit, becoming a family viewing fixture. Appearing at 7pm, twice weekly on ABC it was something adults and children watched together as a family. However it was long gone. An expected superhero resurgence following 1978s Superman: The Movie had not happened. DC sales were tanking, losing out to their main rival Marvel.

Several attempts to launch the character for the big screen had occurred during the 1970’s, Producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael E. Uslan purchased the film rights of Batman from DC Comics on October 3, 1979. They wanted to make the definitive, dark, serious version of Batman, the way Bob Kane and Bill Finger had envisioned him in 1939. Studios always wanted a campy tone, similar to the TV show they remembered. Wheels spun, production went nowhere.

Batman

Then two things happened that would align. First of all, the success of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: The Killing Joke broke through into the mainstream from the world of comics, pushing the darker and more serious Batman to the fore in the minds of potential audiences.

Meanwhile, a small revolution was underway in Hollywood as a new generation of talent emerged that was young, modern and alternative. They had distinctive styles and approaches. Among these was Tim Burton. He had been hand picked to direct Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and that was a financial success, when Beetlejuice repeated that success Warner Bros. interest was peaked.

Burton set about crafting the darker Batman as a nightmarish fantasy in line with the distinct tone of some of his other work. This approach began to raise eyebrows when he cast Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne. There wasn’t really an internet back then. If there was, it would have exploded in rage! He was nobody’s choice as Batman. Even the casting of Oscar winning A-Lister Jack Nicholson as the Joker did nothing to calm the disquiet.

Keaton-Batman

Add to this that this was the first time a comic book movie had been given such big treatment since 1978 and everyone thought the writing was on the wall.

The movie was evaluated as lining up to be a “Flop”. That is the exact word marketing research group Marketing Evaluation Inc. assessed as the box office potential of Batman.

According to the marketing data, the character of Batman was not even as popular as the Incredible Hulk. The Hulk was appearing in made-for-television movies at this time extending the popular TV show. The data showed Batman only had 25% of the brand recognition of the claymation California Raisins. This was going to be a massive bomb, and naysayers were lining up and licking their lips. As producer Uslan told The Washington Post in 2019:

“It can’t be comprehended today, there was no respect for superheroes or their creators.”

There was literally no playbook on how to market something like Batman. Nobody in Hollywood knew where to start. It felt like a disaster was approaching. In the end, they would ultimately revolutionize how the modern blockbuster was marketed.

Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Toys?

Ever since Star Wars showed studios how merchandise can link so closely to  movie release, elaborate licensing strategies had been tried. All had failed. Nothing had captured the imagination like Star Wars.

1982’s E.T. did drive some demand for related products, but nothing like on the scale of Star Wars. Gremlins and Ghostbusters tried to push merch, but failed to really make headway.

Other producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber seemed attuned to the fact that merchandising could be vital. They would make sure scenes were aligned with planned merchandising. They would send notes to the production insisting that no onscreen harm come to the Batmobile. It should remain pristine so that kids would want to grab the toy version.

Millionaire Bruce Wayne had a collection of vehicles and gadgets at his disposal, and so these props should be recreated in plastic and shipped to stores. Above all, they had one secret weapon. Over a decade before Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins would speak of a symbol, they had one. They had a key to unlocking the marketing of this movie that is like a Holy Grail to marketeers.

Instantly recognisable, impactful, working equally well 200 feet wide on the side of a building in full color, or 1/4 an inch long in black and white on the side of a pen. A single image that they could turn into such a powerful marketing tool that you didn’t even need the name of the damn movie on the poster anymore.

Batman-Batmania

This was to be leveraged to the extreme. It began to appear everywhere, licenced as an image by Warner Brothers to anyone who wanted in, and was willing to pay. The circle was complete. As it began to appear, the myth of the movie grew. As the myth of the movie grew, more people wanted in on the licensing. As it began to proliferate, the public got the feeling something big was going on and they wanted more of it. So more people wanted to slap the symbol on their merch. It just snowballed out of control.

This was turbocharged in March 1989 when, just three months before the film’s release, Warner Bros. announced that it was merging with Time Inc. to create the mega-conglomerate Time-Warner. Now they had access to talent and channels to push this into the stratosphere.

Batman

Prince agreed to compose an album of concept music that was tied to the characters, rather than appearing on the soundtrack itself. Batdance became a #1 hit. Their licensing arm, Licensing Corporation of America, contracted more than 300 licensees. There was even a bat-brochure in the shape of a bat-eared catalogue.

Batman

As this grew, the sheer size of the merchandising, and the growing Batmania attached to it, became the story itself. This in turn fed the story even more. Even Entertainment Tonight covered the licensing aspect:

There was a Batman watch, a baseball cap, bicycle shorts, a matching top, a model Batwing, action figures, and a satin jacket modelled by Batman co-creator Bob Kane. There was even a $495 leather bat-jacket studded in rhinestones for those bat-fans with real taste. In the words of the Joker from the movie, ship ’em all!

The Dark Knight Rises

The Batman logo became something that summer. It was almost a way of communicating your anticipation for the movie. Way before the internet allowed us to connect and shitpost like we do here, it was a way of signalling to each other that we knew what was up. You were inside. You were in the know on this movie that was coming, and others knew it who were like you.

Bat Geeks
Hard drive check for these two!

Roughly 1200 of the posters sized for bus stops and subways were stolen, and the producers didn’t care as that made the news too! In barber shops, people began asking to have the logo shaved into the sides of their heads. You genuinely could not get away from that damned logo for months. Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles had to hire additonal staff and extra security to manage the crowds trying to grab Batman trading cards or one of 36 different Batman T-shirt designs.

Batmania

Macy’s had refused to carry licensed goods throughout their history and even they set up a window display. The products became so hot that US Marshalls seized more than 40,000 fake items in a series of raids.

The movie was riding on the crest of its own, self-made wave. A wave of hype and instant brand recognition. It reached a point where it simply couldn’t fail and was completely critic proof.

Batman became the first movie to make $100 million in just 10 days. It broke the opening weekend records held by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (which had a 4-day Memorial Day weekend to grab its haul) and Ghostbusters II. It set the record for a second weekend gross. It made over $400 million worldwide and even today is the 66th highest ever earner in North American.

Warner raked in $500 million on top from legitimate products.

Batmania

Hilariously the studio claimed only $2.9 million in profit had been realized from merchandising. The studio also claimed the movie itself was a $35.8 million loss due to excessive promotional costs. So no money has ever been paid out to people contracted on net profits. See our LMO article on Hollywood Accounting to understand what was happening here.

Those on gross did OK though. Nicholson, whose contract stipulated a cut of all profits, walked away with a cool $50 million.

Now, even in the days of superhero ascendency at the box office, we have never seen anything like Batmania again.

Memories Of Batmania

Stark

I was fourteen that summer. It was a great summer anyway. It was warm, my birthday was just around the corner, and Batman was everywhere. Simply everywhere! I couldn’t believe it when I heard they had cast Beetlejuice as Batman. I couldn’t get my head around it. Then I saw a magazine article with a picture of him in the suit and I realised this wasn’t going to be Adam West in a lumpy leotard.

I was back in the UK after spending time in the US. Dad travelled a lot with his job. All my UK friends were devastated that I hadn’t already seen the movie, so I couldn’t tell them all about it, as back then quite a few movies still opened in the US way before the rest of the world. No global releases back then!

I had a paper round that summer. It was one where you had to collect the money every couple of weeks and you got paid based on how much you had managed to collect. So it was always best to go collect the cash when people were at home in the evening. Not so this day, this day Batman was out! I went early and I went fast. I was so desperate to see Batman that I took a voluntary pay cut!

The round was done in double quick time. I had an appointment. My friends were waiting impatiently and we caught the train to the next town where the big cinema was. The queue as massive. No online booking then. You stood in a line and waited, praying you got in before the “House Full” sign was put out in front of the door.

Thankfully we made it and settled down to watch.

Batman

Even back then, I knew it was a bit… shonky. Some of the VFX are terrible, the plot seems to take second place to the look and feel, Keaton was great as Wayne but Batman, not so much. Having Napier be responsible for the Wayne murders seemed silly even back then. But I still loved it. It was like being part of something, an experience.

I still enjoy Batman to this day, even though it is more shonky than ever and has aged really, really badly. I think the Batmania and the whole event adds to the mystique, rather than the quality of the movie itself.

Drunken Yoda

I was almost 19. To be honest I wasn’t really that hyped. I was more into Indiana Jones, Star Trek V (disappointment), and Ghostbusters. Don’t get me wrong, I went and enjoyed Batman but it wasn’t the top of my radar. I didn’t really read those comics back then so my Batman was Adam West.

I only really came to appreciate and get hyped about Batman in general in the 90s with the animated series and started buying Graphic novels.

Batman

Pops

I was 8 and Batman was probably the first major property that I got obsessed with. Got a bunch of books, toys (The Dark Knight Collection for the win), had a Batman poster that used to scare me at night, but I kept it anyway because I loved Batman. I watched the TV series religiously but, only saw Batman (1989) on VHS in late ’90 or so because I was a sheltered youth who was not allowed to go to PG-13 movies.

Matt AKA EggyWeggs

I was 15 and had a paper round. I would pick up the papers for the route, cycle down the road and out of sight, and then spend half hour going through the various tabloids reading any info I could get on the movie before delivering the papers.

Two weeks before the film came out my Dad booked us all a fucking holiday to Spain and we were leaving the night before the movie opened. Twat!

We drove to Spain in a converted ambulance that took over two fucking days. No such thing as the internet and newspapers (if you could get an English one) were a day behind current events. I missed everything!

When we got home, my girlfriend (who is now my wife) was desperate to see me but I wanted to see my mates. So I agreed to meet her first but on the condition that she come to the cinema with me to see it. I went to the cinema the next day to see it and it remains in my top 5 of superhero movies to this day. Oh and Gigantic Cahuna, Prince’s soundtrack is still the bollocks!

Boba Phil

My recollection of Batman is that I was 14 and this movie was a 12 certificate, so it was the first movie I remember seeing with just my mates and no parents there. We were all convinced it was a 15 rating.

We all got dressed up in our best jeans and shirts, no sneakers, to catch the bus into town. We felt proper grown up.

I remember liking the movie and the other thing I really remember was there were a bunch of French students in the cinema. When Joker says ‘Nes pah’ (or whatever the spelling is) the French kids all piped up and made a fuss.

Me and my mates decided we would going to kick their heads in after the movie. Turns out, there were about 20 of them and only 4 of us, so we let them go…this time.

Batman

Like our articles on the history of Hollywood? Last time around, we looked at the legal wranglings behind the scenes on Rocky IV. Previously we have looked into the truth behind those terrible VFX in Jaws III. Previously we we examined the version of Jaws 2 we nearly got.

Before that we have looked at such varied aspects of Hollywood, and its history that we covered the hidden story behind George Lazenby’s decision to only play 007 once. We have looked at the history of stunts, of special effects, of the studio system, and explored Hollywood’s ties to the mob. We have also examined some of the spooky goings-on associated with Tinseltown and we told the story of one of the true giants of Hollywood. We delved into the backstory of one of the best-known names in the history of horror, Hammer. We took a walk through the history of one of cinema’s greatest art forms – the world of miniatures and model-making for movies.

We explored the history of the box that changed so many Outposters lives – the VCR. We even delved into the murky waters of movie money and the hidden world of Hollywood Accounting and we went deep into genre with a history of disaster movies. Uncover the mystery and the horror surrounding a little known on-set incident during the making of Shark!

We have looked at the Hollywood History of superhero movies, we even looked at the story behind Cannon Films.

Do you have an interest in a period of Hollywood History that you want to share with our community of Outposters? If so, reach out at [email protected] and let us know.

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