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How ‘Batman’ Changed the Summer Blockbuster Forever

The poster was simple, but it was genius. The logo was giant, spilling off the sides of the page, a clean, sparkling, orange-and-black design. Across the bottom, in a simple, white typeface, was a date: “JUNE 23.” That was it. It didn’t tell you what movie it was for; it didn’t spotlight the prominent, marquee names of its stars or its director. It didn’t have to. No one in America who was paying more than passing attention to popular culture had to be told that there was a Batman movie coming in the summer of 1989; it was the most anticipated movie of the season, and that poster knew it. It knew you were waiting for that movie, and it contained one simple bit of information: you could see it on JUNE 23. That was 25 years ago, and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see how Tim Burton’s Batman ended up being one of the most influential films of the modern era — not for what was on screen, which was hardly even relevant. What Batman changed was how the movie-going audience was prepared for summer blockbusters, and how Hollywood grew to depend on them.

It’s hard to believe, in the midst of a season that has already given us a second Captain America movie, a fifth X-Men movie, and a fifth Spider-Man movie (with Guardians of the Galaxy and another Sin City on the way), but comic-book movies were a rarity when Batman was in development. Superman: The Movie had been a giant hit for Batman’s studio, Warner Brothers, back in 1978, as had its first sequel, but the third and fourth Superman films, and the Supergirl spin-off, had witnessed steadily decreasing returns (both commercially and critically). Superheroes were mostly the stuff of live-action and cartoon television series geared towards young audiences (see The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, Super Friends, etc.) — particularly Batman, still best known to the general audience from its campy 1960s BAM-POW TV incarnation.

The original teaser poster for "Batman"

However, on the pages of comic books (or, as the more serious of them were now dubbed, graphic novels), the character had become something else altogether, and director Burton wanted his Batman to follow the tone of dark tales like The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns. Thus, in a rather genius way, Burton and Warner Brothers got to have it both ways: As incompatible as their interpretation was with the mainstream perception of Batman, they were able to create massive anticipation from the character’s preexisting brand recognition.

And that, more than anything, would become the ’89 Batman’s legacy. When we talk about “branding” now, it’s as a marketing term, but the ubiquity of the film’s logo was almost a callback to the word’s origin: like a rancher’s insignia burned into livestock, that Bat-Symbol was everywhere in the months leading up to the June release: T-shirts, hats, keychains, two soundtrack albums, a tie-in paperback novel, action figures, video games, breakfast cereal, soda cans, fast-food cups, even candy bars.

When the cash registers stopped, Batman had rung up $750 million in merchandise sales. That’s more than the movie made — and it was the highest-grossing film of the year. And that figure is even more remarkable when you reflect that most of that money was made before people had even seen the movie. It could have been terrible! But that didn’t actually matter. People were sold on the idea of a dark, moody, cool Batman movie — and that was the idea that they quite literally bought into.

And they had some clue of what to expect, thanks to one of the savviest marketing moves of the innovative campaign. The initial pushback to the film among comic book fans was fierce; Burton was best known as the director of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, after all, and star Michael Keaton was, to put it mildly, no action hero. So super-producers Jon Peters and Peter Gruber cobbled together a “teaser trailer,” which appeared in theaters at Christmas 1988, a full six months before the film’s release:

They didn’t invent the idea of the teaser trailer, and this odd, minute-and-a-half clip bears little resemblance to what we think of as one today; noticeably missing Danny Elfman’s iconic music (presumably not yet recorded), it has the rough, thrown-together feel of an iMovie video. But no one had ever responded to a teaser trailer like this. In that pre-Internet age, word was that Bat-fans were buying tickets to movies they didn’t even want to see, just to get a look at the teaser; once it unspooled, they’d head out of the auditorium. People were buying tickets to see Batman’s trailer. The film itself would have to perform spectacularly to live up to that kind of hype.

And then, it did. 1989 was a record-breaking summer at the box office; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Ghostbusters II had already broken the previous benchmarks for opening weekend grosses, with (respectively) $29.3 million and $29.4 million. Batman’s toppled those records with a three-day gross of $40.4 million. “It crossed $100 million in ten days,” writes box-office analyst Scott Mendelson, “crossed $150 million in nineteen days, and told Hollywood that short-term profitability was a possibility. Eventually, it would become the only goal.”

Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker in "Batman"

I still remember seeing Batman for the first time. A friend’s mom loaded us into the minivan and drove us to the local mall for a weekday matinee, and I remember, on the way there, feeling like it was odd that we could just go see it; after months of Bat-symbols on every vertical surface, a 2:45 Tuesday showing on a beat-up screen at this shoebox multiplex seemed a bit anti-climactic. Batman’s ubiquitous marketing and deafening hype had made it more than a mere movie — it was an event, something that was less about your desire than your obligation, as a movie-going American, to participate.

And that, more than anything, was the portion of the Batman playbook that its successors would strive to replicate. You can see its fingerprints all over the current summer blockbuster landscape: pre-established brands (preferably of the superhero vintage), release dates staked out months (even years) in advance, trailers, teaser trailers (even teasers for teaser trailers, for God’s sake), merchandising and tie-ins out the wazoo, all steering moviegoers towards that all-important, do or die, breathlessly reported opening weekend gross. And then it all starts over again. Most of Batman’s reviews were complimentary enough (not that they mattered), but The New York Observer’s David Handelman deemed Batman “less movie than a corporate behemoth.” And he was right; there’s a movie there, one with virtues (Elfman’s music, Keaton’s quiet intensity, Anton Furst’s brilliant production design) and flaws (Burton’s uneven tone, the spotty script, too much Nicholson). But the movie didn’t matter; what mattered was how it was packaged. And, sadly, that’s the lesson that seems to have stuck, a quarter-century later.

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