Reacting Synergistically: Batman and Time Warner

Kimberly A Owczarski. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 1. Praeger Perspectives Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.

The first extended look at Warner Bros.’ Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005) immediately followed the May 2005 season finale of Smallville (2001-2005), a television drama that centers on the life of young Clark Kent, otherwise known as the alter ego of Superman. This synergistic moment illustrates the power of contemporary media conglomerates in three distinct ways. First, a single media conglomerate was responsible for the production and airing of both the film and the television show. Produced by Warner Bros. Television, Smallville, like Batman Begins, was produced by a subsidiary of Time Warner. The airing network (the WB) was also owned by Time Warner. Second, the two superheroes’ histories have intertwined numerous times in multiple media forms, particularly in comic books because they were both created by DC Comics, another Time Warner subsidiary. Earlier in the decade, the two superheroes would have been pitted against each other in a feature film directed by Wolfgang Peterson had separate scripts relaunching each individual franchise not been preferred by Warner Bros. executives. Finally, the event was publicized highly through other arms of the conglomerate, including the magazine Entertainment Weekly, produced by a subsidiary of the company, Time Inc. The news of the Superman/Batman crossover was ushered in through the Entertainment Weekly Web site, often accessible through Time Warner’s Roadrunner high-speed Internet service.

As this example demonstrates, the nature of media integration in contemporary Hollywood has grown increasingly complex as synergy takes place in the production and marketing aspects of the industry, as well in actual narrative construction. Synergy is a company’s attempt to bring “together groups of information and entertainment media that could be used to cross-promote each other’s products.” The key driving force in the pursuit of synergy is the franchise film, a specific branch of the blockbuster than can be exploited in multiple variations across media formats. The franchise film functions as “a two-hour promotion for a multimedia product line, designed with the structure of both the parent company and the diversified media marketplace in mind.” The franchise film is meant to be a launching pad for future movies, tie-in video games, and merchandise available at local department stores. The development of media conglomerates since the 1980s has ushered in an era of larger and larger franchises, in an effort to capitalize on a film’s success through (nearly) every arm of the company. In its 1993 Annual Report, Time Warner used the Batman franchise as its example for synergy. Radiating from the iconic Batman symbol used for the 1989 film were examples of the other media formats through which the property could be pushed: Comics, Licensing, Theatrical, Video, Pay TV, U.S. Network, Animation, Syndication, Theme Parks, and Music.  Nearly each of these formats had a corresponding subsidiary within Time Warner. The Batman franchise thus exemplified Time Warner’s “World-Class Marketing and Distribution” capabilities across multiple media.

While the Time Warner 1993 Annual Report uses the Batman franchise as its example of synergy, it does not directly state how that is achieved within the multimedia corporation other than to list the (potential) divisions involved in the process. This chapter is a case study of how the Batman franchise initially was used synergistically by Time Warner and how it continues to be a synergistic endeavor. In 1989, the successes of Batman at the box office and across multiple media functioned as a blueprint for synergy for the newly formed Time Warner. By the time Batman Begins was released, the company’s synergistic enterprises were working more in synch than anyone had anticipated in 1989, especially as the film’s promotions expanded into new media technologies. Ultimately, the Batman franchises provide an excellent case study of how the divisions of a conglomerate “react synergistically” to create and promote its key products.

The “Amazing Functions” of Batman

Each product only contains one component. The elements react synergistically, in combination. Hair spray won’t do it alone. But let’s say … hair spray and perfume and lipstick will be toxic and—untraceable.

—Batman to Vicki Vale in Batman

As Batman tells photojournalist Vicki Vale, one product is not enough—it is only in combination with other products that their greatest potential can be achieved. It is an apt insight about synergy by Batman given his place in Time Warner history. In 1989, a few months before the blockbuster Batman was released, Time Inc. and Warner Communications, Inc. (WCI) announced the merger of the two companies, a merger that would create the largest multimedia corporation in the world. In the wake of this announcement, journalists and media analysts struggled with the meaning behind the spate of media mergers that occurred in the last half of the 1980s. In an article for The Nation in June 1989, Ben H. Bagdikian stressed:

Each of these planetary corporations plans to gather under its control every step in the information process, from creation of “the product” to all the various means by which modern technology delivers media messages to the public. “The product” is news, information, ideas, entertainment and popular culture; the public is the whole world.

For Bagdikian, this trend was a worrying one particularly in regard to “the product,” for the corporations’ “grand strategy of synergism, increases what already is a drug on the market: commercially safe, generic, all-purpose books, films and TV programs.” In Bagdikian’s view, synergy stood as the base strategy of these newly forming and ever-increasing media conglomerates. Using the Batman franchise, Time Warner first put this strategy into action.

With its theatrical release in June 1989, Batman became the first film to reach the $100 million mark at the domestic box office in only 10 days. In fact, the film shattered several box office records as it opened. In its first weekend at the box office, Batman broke the record for biggest Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and weekend openings ever. And by the end of its theatrical run, Batman emerged as second on the all-time domestic box office gross list, just behind E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982) and just before Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983), with a domestic gross of $250 million. Batman also was a powerful merchandising vehicle, with over $500 million in retail sales by the end of the year. The two tie-in soundtracks performed solidly, and Batman comic book sales increased as a result of the film’s popularity. In reviewing the box office statistics for the films of the summer of 1989, David Ansen of Newsweek referred to Batman‘s success as “a merchandising, musical and motion-picture grand slam of unprecedented proportions.” Although Time and Warner had not quite merged by the time of its theatrical release, Batman was the conglomerate’s first triumph, integrating synergy into every aspect of the production process.

For example, in the preproduction process, producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters were concerned about the film’s eventual merchandising function. The producers wanted the screenplay to reflect more of Batman’s traditional gadgets, presumably to tie-in to merchandise and toys being developed in connection with the film. In regard to a scene where Bruce Wayne used a Filofax to stop a bullet, the producers asked for a Bat-gadget to be used instead, claiming that “The point of a movie called BATMAN is to see BATMAN using a Bat device to be used to save him.” In a scene where Vicki Vale discussed bats with Batman, the producers noted: “Let’s make sure we see the various amazing functions of his cape.” When the Bat-signal was removed from the ending of the film, the producers asked, “[I]s it possible to use it elsewhere?” Finally, the producers were very concerned with the appearance of the Batmobile and responded to a scene where it was unclear what happened to the vehicle: “We would really like to see it drive out unscathed.” Clearly, the producers’ emphasis on Batman’s gadgets was tied to issues of merchandising.

Besides seeing to the merchandising aspects to the film, the producers also were involved in the creation of the film’s primary tie-in soundtrack by bringing in pop music star Prince. In addition to being a highly successful recording artist, Prince was also a key Warner’s commodity. He had released several albums through Warner Records, and Warner Bros. had also released his profitable film, Purple Rain (Albert Magnoli, 1984). The film featured a popular soundtrack by Prince—it was number one on the music charts for 24 consecutive weeks—and spawned several music videos. The origins of how Prince became involved with Batman are unclear; director Tim Burton was not sure if he was just interested in the project or if studio executives asked him to do it:

I’m not sure how this happened. If it was from the producers, or Prince … wanted to do music for the film. That was probably my first introduction into the studio world of other things … He was so prolific, and he just had done all of these songs. And a few of them felt like they were really good for the Joker. They were very Joker-esque kind of, kind of songs. So, but it was sort of a separate thing from, I mean, you know, I’m there making the movie, and then they had this whole idea for a concept album or whatever. … That was my, you know, first thing, first movie, where, and it was probably kind of the early beginnings for them in terms of marketing and things, you know. Like I had never heard the term franchise before, they never used it.

What is clear is the synergy of the collaboration, even if Burton was not aware of those intentions. Prince’s concept album as well as the single “Batdance” and its music video were released before the film arrived in theaters. The video, described by one journalist as “the aural equivalent of a movie trailer,” featured Prince as a Gemini-type character whose costume reflects Batman on one side and the Joker on the other, both modeled on actual costumes worn by the characters in the film. “Batdance” also featured lines of dialogue taken directly from the film. In this regard, the use of the artist Prince, his tie-in soundtrack, and the music videos spawned by the album illustrated how WCI could push a product across multiple arms of the company.

Another indication of WCI’s ability to push products across its multiple arms was its merchandising division, the Licensing Corp. of America (LCA), which licensed over 300 Batman items to 100 companies with products ranging from toys and clothes to sheets and other domestic products such as Batsoap on a rope. Because WCI had an in-company licensing source with LCA, each product sold in the marketplace earned the company between 6 and 10 percent of its wholesale price. Producers Guber and Peters decided to hold back many of the toys based on equipment featured in the film (including a utility belt, Batarang, and Batwing) until after the film opened in an attempt to build anticipation for the products. Indeed, merchandisers visited the production in order to view the sets, costumes, and props and also worked closely with production designer Anton Furst to develop toys that reflected the overall look of the film and characters.

In preproduction meetings for Batman, producer Jon Peters told screenwriter Warren Skaaren that he would use his first draft as a “prototype of how I want things to be on all pictures before we go into production.” As the success of Batman reached from the box office to video sales to hundreds of millions of dollars in merchandise sales, it became clear that the film would be a “prototype” for other franchise films to follow, particularly with any Batman sequels. While waiting for the first forthcoming sequel, Time Warner needed to keep Batman at the forefront of popular culture. The company also continued to expand its media outlets, not only to push Batman and other corporate products in new dimensions but also to compete with rival conglomerates such as the Walt Disney Company. Throughout the 1990s, Time Warner engaged in a number of measures to promote its key properties, such as Batman, as well as to continue its status as the world’s largest media conglomerate.

A year after the merger was completed, Time Warner as a whole encountered large losses as several divisions underperformed and the financial fallout from the merger was felt. Time Warner’s net losses in 1990 were $227 million, or approximately $13.67 per share. In 1991, the company lost $99 million, approximately $9.60 per share. In contrast, the smaller conglomerate of Disney earned $824 million in profits for 1990 and $817 million in profits for 1991, the second highest of the diversified service companies for both years. Key to Disney’s profits during those two years were synergistic franchises like The Little Mermaid, an animated film with a highly successful soundtrack and merchandising campaign. Clearly, Disney’s multimedia strategies for its key products were working for the company.

In order to compete with one aspect of Disney’s dominant performance during this two-year period, Time Warner launched Warner Bros. Studio Stores in four malls in late 1991. Disney had opened over a hundred of its own retail stores over the past four years, and executives at Time Warner believed there would be a similar market for their company’s products. Disney’s stores were selling more than double the national average per square foot of retail space and provided an additional venue for synergy. Indeed, the Disney stores were the perfect opportunity to merge the studio’s various interests in its theme parks, television offerings, and films into one (consumable) retail space. Time Warner’s foray into the retail business had a similar goal. The first store, which opened in Beverly Hills in September 1991, featured larger-than-life figures of Batman and Superman, as well as a crawling space underneath Bugs Bunny for young children, and offered products ranging from animation cels to t-shirts to home furnishings. Sales at the 4 stores during the holiday season were so robust that the company pushed ahead to create 17 more retail stores within the next year. The opening of the Warner Bros. Studio Stores provided Time Warner with a direct retail space for the selling of products related to their key properties. According to Peter Starrett, Warner Bros. Senior Vice President and Director of Retail at the time, this was the main purpose for launching the stores: “[T]here was nothing that placed all the properties under one roof, into one cohesive state. … The studio stores bring us one step closer to the customer with the highest quality of Warner Bros. property.”

In another attempt to compete with Disney, Time Warner also ventured into theme parks. In 1991, Time Warner joined with two other firms to take over the debt-ridden Six Flags Amusement Parks, creating Six Flags Entertainment. According to Robert Pittman, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Six Flags Entertainment, the corporate backing of Time Warner was a step to push the amusement parks in a more profitable direction by using the company’s key assets as promotional tools: “Now that it has an entertainment company behind it, we can reach into our movies, TV shows and characters the way Disney does.” In June 1992, the Six Flags Magic Mountain Park in California launched the Batman Stunt Show and Batman Nights: Fireworks & Laser Show. On the two shows’ impact on the parks, Pittman claimed Batman’s presence was a substantial benefit:

Bringing Six Flags into the Time Warner family offered us an opportunity to take Batman, one of Time Warner’s premier properties, into an entertaining new sphere never available to us …. This is an example of how the brand influence of Time Warner holdings will be working together and helping each other.

Indeed, Warner Bros. did benefit from this arrangement because the presence of the two shows provided further promotion for the next Batman film, which opened in June 1992.

The presence of Batman at the Six Flags parks also helped spur admissions for 1992. In the Annual Report for 1992, Time Warner’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Gerald Levin composed a letter to shareholders that reiterated how properties like Batman work across the various arms of Time Warner, including Six Flags:

Copyright protection makes our mission possible. With it, we are able to take the words and images we produce and sell them over and over, through many different media, in many different markets, for the lifetime of the copyright. Six Flags, for example, the theme-park company in which we own a 50% interest, made increasing use of Time Warner copyrights such as Looney Tunes, Batman, and Sports Illustrated to help achieve 1992’s record attendance.

In addition to the two shows at the Magic Mountain Park, Six Flags had also initiated a highly successful Batman ride at its Great America theme park in Chicago in May 1992. Advertised as the first “suspended, outside-looping roller coaster,” Batman the Ride provided not only the thrilling experience of the ride itself but also of the property as well. With lines running over an hour and a half before boarding, visitors were enmeshed in the “Gotham City ‘environment’” as they waited. For a similar roller coaster that opened a year later at AstroWorld in Houston, Texas, George Ladyman, the Design Director of Six Flags, claimed that this environment was part of an immersive experience with the character’s world: “We design a lot differently from a film …. A film is purely visual, but here it’s three-dimensional. You can actually walk through ours. You can knock on the penguins.” The environment for the AstroWorld roller coaster, Batman: The Escape, was modeled on the 1992 film Batman Returns, and designers for the roller coaster actually visited the film’s sets. Indeed, both roller coasters used aspects of the film’s soundtracks in the waiting areas, either from the orchestral scores created by Danny Elfman, pop songs created by Prince, or snippets of dialogue from the films themselves. Thus, Time Warner merged aspects of its film, music, and amusement park capabilities through these Batman rides.

In September 1992, a new animated program about Batman premiered on the Fox television network. Produced by Tim Burton, Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) mimicked the dark and foreboding atmosphere of the 1989 and 1992 films. The show was initially geared toward older teens and young adults, which informed the approach taken for the animation style as well as the narrative construction. In December 1992, Fox began to premiere episodes of Batman: The Animated Series in prime time because reruns of the show that had aired in that time slot did better in the ratings than previously offered fare. Although the show was aimed at an older audience, Batman: The Animated Series did well with younger audiences, too. In Time Warner’s 1992 Annual Report, the show was highlighted as the top-rated daytime children’s show for ages 2-11 as well as for commanding the highest priced advertisement ever for an animated show aired during the day time.

All of these additional venues for Batman helped promote the film’s sequel, Batman Returns, when it was released in theaters in June 1992 and on video in October of the same year. Burton did not imagine the film as a sequel and referred to it as a further episode of the Batman story in interviews about the film. In the foreword to Batman Returns: The Official Movie Book, Burton explained this point clearly:

So let me begin by saying that Batman Returns is not really a sequel to Batman. It doesn’t pick up where the first film left off. The sets for Gotham City are completely new. There are lots of new elements in the visuals and storyline that haven’t been seen before. Even Batman’s costume has been revised.

The point was to make it all feel fresh and new. It was the only way I could envision the movie.

Because of his success with the first film, Burton was given much more freedom with the sequel’s production. Executives at Time Warner treated the project as Burton’s personal film, hoping that a hands-off attitude would result in another Batman film that broke box office records. Rather than focus on Bruce Wayne or Batman, who are barely seen in the first 40 minutes of the film, he centered the story on the villainous exploits of the Penguin and Cat-woman. Many reviewers remarked on how close these characters were to the outsider characters in previous Burton films and repeatedly used the word “personal” in their reviews to stress that they saw this film as an auteur’s, rather than a studio’s, work.

Burton chose to include the song “Face to Face” from punk band Siouxie and the Banshees (of which he was a self-described fan) rather than music from a more accessible, mainstream artist, especially one that recorded for one of Warner’s many record labels. His choice not to select a Warner’s recording artist highlighted his refusal to engage in the synergistic wishes of the company. Although representatives from toy companies and other merchandising partners did have access to the Batman Returns set, as they did with the first film, Burton did not particularly welcome this aspect of the business. Indeed, he viewed it as a problem and distraction:

[B]eyond that, the other aspects of it, the, you know, the, the merchandising, all that stuff that is now become such commonplace stuff was not a thing that I probably handled well, or dealt well with, or liked. So, the movie is the movie … You got a huge job just to make the movie. And, eh, so all of this other stuff is, is necessary to them, the studio and all the people, but for me it’s just more of a problem and distraction. And, eh, you know, it’s hard for me to tell, you know, a toy company what something’s going to look like when I don’t even know myself. You know, you get into that kind of stuff. And, eh, you know, then you keep wondering why you make, you know, a movie in like several months and it takes, you know, them the same time to make a T-shirt. You know, there’s a weird juxta … it’s a weird time warp, you know, with like how long you have and how long they have and need.

His refusal to cooperate fully with the needs and desires of the merchandising partners may have helped spur the companies’ backlash against the franchise after Batman Returns opened.

Before Burton had even agreed to direct and produce the second film, Time Warner had secured many high-profile merchandising deals for the Batman franchise. Directly after the success of Batman and its associated merchandise in 1989, representatives from Time Warner began to approach potential merchandising partners. Warner Bros. Worldwide Consumer Products, formerly LCA, had signed over a hundred licenses in the United States before the film opened with companies such as Kenner Toys, Ralston Purina (for a Batman-centered cereal), and Sears (for Batman boutiques in some 300 stores). Dan Romanelli, the president of Warner’s Consumer Products Division, believed this to be the logical next step in Batman merchandising:

This is probably the strongest alignment of promotional and licensing agreements in history. … I think that ‘89 was unprecedented, and I think this is going to be bigger. We didn’t have the animated series in 1989 and with that, the retail community and the licensees are very happy with that support.

Indeed, Time Warner provided an additional forum for pushing Batman Returns products through advertising on the newly created Batman: The Animated Series, which was set to air on the Fox television network in the Fall.

With the number of child-oriented licenses and the pending arrival of a new Batman-centered cartoon, Batman Returns was poised to be a film acceptable for young children. Like the first film, Batman Returns was rated PG-13 and many families brought younger children to see it. No doubt, the film’s tie-in toy and merchandising partners such as McDonald’s emphasized it as a film acceptable for smaller children. However, its graphic violence and content (which included electrocutions, a deformed baby, a mutant gang, and Cat-woman dressed in fetishistic leather and wielding a whip) hardly seemed appropriate for younger viewers. As parents and parents’ groups complained to Time Warner and merchandising partners, it became clear that Burton had led the film franchise in a direction incompatible with the commercial interests of the company. As a result of the complaints McDonald’s received for its involvement with Batman Returns, the fast-food company changed its merchandising practices significantly, requiring extended looks at films before partnership agreements would even be considered. Toy sales were slow, and comic book sales were not positively affected by the film. Rather than driving the revenues of other divisions of Time Warner as the first film had done, Batman Returns became a public relations nightmare.

The “Toyetic” Batman

Although Batman Returns was Time Warner’s top film for the year and second in terms of domestic box office grosses for the entire industry, it was not considered a success. Batman Returns grossed $163 million at the domestic box office and propelled Warner Bros. to first place in market share for 1992, but its earnings were less than two-thirds of the first film. After the backlash Batman Returns suffered, Time Warner executives knew that a new direction for Batman was necessary if the franchise was to continue. Their first decision was to keep Burton from doing a third film even though he had been entertaining the thought of staying on for one more film. Instead, a director who had worked faithfully for the studio before, Joel Schumacher, was chosen to lighten up the series. Claimed Romanelli: “We knew we had a problem … We knew that people felt the last film was kind of dark. We really turned around the feeling about Batman as a movie franchise, and Joel was key to that strategy.” In the film’s preproduction stage, Schumacher met with many potential merchandising partners to emphasize how he was changing the course of the franchise, and he also went to the Toy Fair with the same message. As a result of Schumacher’s and the studio’s efforts to convince partners that the film would have a lighter tone, Batman Forever attracted over 200 sponsors from products ranging from fast food to toothpaste. Even McDonald’s came back for the third film, convinced that the film would be more appropriate for younger viewers.

Schumacher’s take on Batman worked. Batman Forever was the top grossing film for 1995, earning more than $184 million at the domestic box office. It set a new opening weekend box office record at $52.8 million. It was not just the box office figures, however, that made the film a success. Unlike the previous film, Batman Forever pushed its success across multiple arms of Time Warner. After its opening weekend, the company’s stock rose $2.50 per share to $43.12, a high it had not seen in over a year. The soundtrack, featuring songs by Seal and U2, had sold over a million copies by July. Attendance at Six Flags Parks, several of which had received new Batman rides and a few had Batman-centered entertainment shows that year, was up significantly. Warner’s retail stores, which had temporarily changed their name to Batman Headquarters, had doubled their sales from 1994. Videos by both Seal and U2 were popular on MTV, further promoting the film. The film itself also featured references to other Time Warner entities—particularly, two key magazines that were part of Time Inc. In Chase Meridian’s apartment, Bruce Wayne thumbs through her Batman-related research materials and finds a “Times” and a “Persons” magazine, each replicating the look of Time and People magazines, respectively. Batman Forever thus integrated multiple arms of Time Warner not only in terms of its promotional activities but also within the text itself.

Batman Forever was also the first time a Batman film had a Web site. The Web site, however, did not just promote the film; it also promoted other arms of the company. The Web site took three months to complete and was part of a campaign integrating traditional and new media outlets for advertising. The film’s ABC television special, MTV documentary, and posters all featured the Web address, and posters placed in subways and bus stations simply featured the Batman logo with the address. The main page was set up to reflect the streets of Gotham, and this hub provided opportunities for users to go to the Gotham Cinema, where trailers of Batman Forever were available; the Gotham Library, which held sneak peaks at several forthcoming Batman comics by DC Comics; Gotham Radio Station, where sound clips from the tie-in songs could be heard; and the Gotham Art Gallery, where photographs from the film could be accessed. Although the use of the Internet as a promotional device was new to film studios, Warner Bros. used the Web site for Batman Forever as a new way to target its core audience and promote multiple products related to the Batman franchise.

As a company, Time Warner continued to expand into other media for additional venues to push its key products, such as Batman. In August 1995, Time Warner announced that the company would purchase Turner Broadcasting System from mogul Ted Turner. Through this deal, Time Warner would gain cable networks CNN, TNT, TBS, the Cartoon Network, and Turner Classic Movies as well as studios New Line Cinema, Castle Rock Pictures, and Hanna-Barbera Cartoons Inc. A key focus of the merger was to strengthen brands already owned by Time Warner through the additional media outlets provided by Turner Broadcasting. In the 1996 Annual Report for Time Warner, the company states that “Global distribution in traditional and electronic media strengthens and popularizes powerful brands.” The next page features four of Time Warner’s and Turner’s driving brands—Batman, Sports Illustrated, CNN, and Looney Tunes—and provides examples of how these brands are carried through multiple components of the company. The brand of Batman, for example, is characterized by TV animation, comics, film, merchandise, theme parks, and soundtracks. In the Warner Bros. Entertainment section of this annual report, the relationship between these arms is spelled out clearly: “Retailing, licensing and theme parks reinforce the power of Warner Bros.’ brands, turning hits into entertainment franchises that become more valuable over time.”

Given the success of Batman Forever in terms of box office grosses and merchandising dollars, another sequel was inevitable for the Batman franchise. Immediately after the third film hit theaters and broke box office records during the summer of 1995, the fourth film was put on the fast track for a 1997 release, which provided less than two years for the film to be planned, shot, and released. Indeed, theaters were booked for its release before a single frame was even shot. Wanting to avoid a public relations debacle like Batman Returns, the fourth film was set up using the highly successful Batman Forever as its blueprint. As with the previous film, Schumacher was charged with lightening up the franchise. According to Schumacher, “[T]here was a real desire at the studio to keep it more family-friendly, more kid-friendly. And, a word I had never heard before, more toyetic, which means that what you create makes toys that can sell.” Toy manufacturers had a considerable hand in designing the costumes, Batmobile, and Bat-gadgets used in Batman and Robin. Schumacher worked closely with representatives from Kenner,

“[R]obbing each other’s ideas” to create stronger sets, props and costume elements for both the film and licensed products, from villain Mr. Freeze’s (Arnold Schwarzenegger) Freezemobile to Robin’s cycle. One result of the[ir] early collaboration is six times the number of action figures with the latest installment than with the previous one.

Many of these toys were sold through the Warner Bros. Studio stores, which changed their design to reflect a “freeze” from the film’s main villain through icicle-laced décor, life-sized copies of the Mr. Freeze character, and prop ice floes.

In relation to the release of Batman and Robin, Time Warner enlisted a slew of tie-in partners. Executives at Time Warner secured $125 million worth of promotional partners, from companies such as Frito Lay, Taco Bell, Kellogg’s, and Amoco. Frito Lay placed images from the film on several of the company’s leading chip brands as well as on in-store displays, while Taco Bell offered collectible cups and dressed the fast food chain’s restaurants with promotional images on its windows. Kellogg’s featured Batman characters on several cereals, Pop-Tarts, and Eggo’s waffles, which displayed the Bat signal. Michael Gough, the actor who played Alfred, pumped gas at an Amoco gas station in a television commercial, and the gas company featured Batman images on its pumps across the United States. Bob Schneider, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Promotions for Time Warner’s consumer products division, claimed the purpose of these tie-ins was to add additional promotional opportunities for the film; it is a process that “creates a billboard effect, whether you’re driving past a Taco Bell or down a supermarket aisle.” Indeed, given the vast number of promotional tie-ins for the film, Schumacher quipped: “I’ve become a total Batman slut.”

Batman and High-Tech Synergy

Batman and Robin did not only rely on traditional media sources as promotional devices; like the previous film, it also made extensive use of the Internet. The Web site had many of the same features as the site for Batman Forever—audio files from the film’s soundtrack, trailers, photographs of the cast, games, and downloadable posters. However, the online marketing campaign for Batman and Robin expanded beyond the film’s Web site. The compact disc of the soundtrack, which featured artists such as Smashing Pumpkins, R. Kelly, Jewel, and R.E.M., also provided software for Prodigy Internet access. Users who popped the disc into CD-ROM drives on their computers would be brought automatically to the film’s Web site. Two of the film’s stars—Arnold Schwarzenegger and George Clooney—chatted live with fans on Prodigy days before the film opened. The world premiere of the film was Web cast via E! Online’s site, and featured interviews with the stars as well as live audio and video feeds of the stars’ arrivals.

While Batman and Robin relied heavily on Internet promotions, the expanding medium offered a few wrinkles to the film’s online strategy. Aint It Cool News, an upstart Web site in Austin, Texas, was fast-developing as one of the most powerful entertainment sites on the Internet. Aint It Cool News provided a forum for user commentaries on preview screenings of studio films. The site’s creator, Harry Knowles, ran a scathing review of Batman and Robin before the film even opened in theaters. According to Knowles, Schumacher derailed the Batman franchise:

First, let me say that Joel Schumacher should be shot and killed. I will pay a handsome bounty to the man (or woman) who delivers me the head of this Anti Christ. He has single-handedly destroyed what started out to be a great series of films.

Chris Pula, head of publicity for Warner Bros. at the time, criticized Knowles’ running of the review, claiming he had not seen the finished print, and his review could affect the film’s overall reception. Knowles responded by putting 52 separate reviews of the film on his site—all negative. Mass media outlets, including People, featured the story about the conflict between Pula and Knowles before the film even opened.

The negative sentiment about Batman and Robin echoed on this Web site and others led to an underwhelming run at the box office. Although Batman and Robin was the top film for Warner Bros. in 1997, it grossed only $107 million at the domestic box office and was the ninth film for the year overall. The failure of Batman and Robin at the box office extended not just to its grosses but to the company’s overall bottom line. Time Warner’s market share plummeted to fourth, its worst finish among its rival studios since 1982. Ravaged by film critics and fans alike, the film’s weak performance put the Batman film franchise on hiatus for several years.

While the film franchise was in hiatus, a number of television versions of Batman emerged. Batman Gotham Knights (1997-1999) premiered shortly after the failure of Batman and Robin as part of The New Batman/Superman Adventures block on Time Warner’s network, the WB. Batman Gotham Knights was a continuation of Batman: The Animated Series. Batman Beyond (1999-2001), also on the WB, was part of the network’s popular block of Saturday morning cartoons aimed at children and examines the birth of a new Batman after Bruce Wayne has retired. In 2002, a live-action spin-off from the Batman mythos, Birds of Prey (2002-2003), debuted on the WB in prime-time and followed the exploits of the Huntress, the illegitimate daughter of Batman and Catwoman. Finally, The Batman premiered on the WB in 2004, and as of 2008, it remains on the air on the CW. The Batman follows a young Batman as he attempts to establish himself in Gotham City.

At one point, executives at Time Warner planned on adapting one of these television versions of Batman—Batman Beyond—into a live-action film. Indeed, in between Batman and Robin in 1997 and Batman Begins in 2005, three high-profile film sequels were instigated but subsequently abandoned as Time Warner executives struggled to find the right approach to restart the film franchise. Ultimately, Christopher Nolan was selected to helm the next Batman film, and his approach to the franchise mimicked his award-winning independent film background, which included Memento (2000), a film told in reverse order. Nolan’s use of an unconventional narrative structure, a realistic aesthetic, and a twist in the third act differentiated Batman Begins from the other Batman films and linked directly with the style he had shown in his previous, independent film work. By refocusing on the start of Batman’s career as a crimefighter, Nolan’s film rebooted the franchise, throwing out a number of the aspects developed in the previous films.

Although Warner Bros. entrusted the lucrative franchise to a formerly independent filmmaker, the company hedged its bets on the film’s performance by investing a lot of energy (and dollars) into promoting the film. Rumored to have had a $100 million marketing campaign, nearly as much as the film’s production budget, Batman Begins received a substantial amount of press coverage because of these promotional activities. For example, Time Warner sponsored a NASCAR race at the Michigan International Speedway called the “Batman Begins 400” on June 19, 2005, the first time a specific film had ever been the primary tie-in. According to Romanelli, the sponsorship of the event was about linking the speed and excitement of NASCAR to the film:

We’re looking forward to pairing the on-screen excitement of Batman Begins to the on-track excitement of NASCAR. … A fast car, the BatmobileTM, and a host of high-tech gadgets have always been key to Batman’s success in fighting his way to victory over crime. As NASCAR’s finest drivers take to the track on June 19 for the Batman Begins 400 at Michigan International Speedway, they will utilize all of the high-tech gadgets at their disposal to take their team to victory lane.

One of the Batmobiles used for the film worked as the pace car for the event, and Batman Begins merchandise was available for purchase throughout the stadium. In another promotional venue, Batman Begins was adapted into a stunt show at several Six Flag parks. As it opened in early June 2005, the Batman Begins Stunt Show featured special effects, fighting sequences, and a car chase featuring the Batmobile. According to Del Holland, the Vice President and General Manager of the Six Flags Magic Mountain Park, it was the most elaborate stunt show the park had ever produced. In addition to these promotional events, Batman Begins also relied on promotional partners such as Dell. Dell products were prominently featured in the film, and the June 2005 catalog for Dell features stills from Batman Begins throughout its 50 pages. In the last few pages of the catalog, Dell products are specifically associated with the film. Under the headline “Awesome movie … awesome gear,” the copy foregrounds this relationship: “Look for DellTM products in the summer blockbuster Batman Begins. And now you can make this equipment your own for as little as $6 a month—proof positive that you don’t need to be an orphaned vigilante billionaire to get your hands on some awesome tech.” Gear such as the Dell Axim X50 are described in relation to Batman, “[N]o utility belt should be without one,” while the Dell Dimension XPS Gen 5 desktop computer “is always ready to take on the bad guys.” The catalog also featured the film’s logo and release date several times, further promoting the film.

In addition to these promotional outlets, Batman Begins featured a comprehensive Web site. The film’s Web site, like the previous two films in the franchise, linked together several divisions of Time Warner through tie-in products. The comic books and graphic novels that influenced the story and look of Batman Begins were especially highlighted. In fact, three of these stories were later bundled together for the DVD release of the film and included in its packaging. Other aspects of the site emphasized the gadgetry used in the film, particularly the reimagined Batmobile, all of which became merchandise available at local stores. The film’s Web site also promoted a mobile game, allowing users the opportunity to download a program and play as Batman on their cell phones.

Unlike Batman and Robin, which received a critical drubbing from hardcore fans prior to its release, Internet fan sites heavily promoted Batman Begins as a return to the property’s darker roots based on the materials available on the Web site, the trailers, and in promotional materials. This positive word-of-mouth was also echoed in the critical reviews of the film once it was released. Ultimately, Batman Begins became the ninth highest grossing film of 2005, with $205 million at the domestic box office and another $166 million from the international box office. As the second highest earning film in the franchise, the film’s direction not only signaled that a sequel would follow but also that the Internet would play an even bigger role in the next film’s promotion.

With The Dark Knight still in production, and not set for release until the summer of 2008, Warner Bros. instigated a viral marketing campaign during the summer of 2007 to promote the film. A few days after the official Warner Bros. Web site for the film launched, Joker cards started appearing in specialty comic shops. The official Warner Bros. Web site featured a campaign poster for Harvey Dent, running for District Attorney, with the tagline “I Believe In Harvey Dent,” while the Joker cards featured the Web site address http://IBelieveInHarveyDentToo.com. The same poster appeared at the second site, but it was defaced. In investigating the page, users entered their email addresses when prompted and then received an email message that gave the location of one pixel that was to be removed from the Web site. As more users investigated the page, provided their email addresses, and clicked onto their pixels, a new image was revealed. Fans, using sites such as Aint It Cool News, spread the word about the site, which soon displayed a hidden picture of the Joker, the first public image of the character featured in the sequel.

The move to this Internet-centered viral campaign for a major franchise is part of the company’s expanding digital strategy. In the late 1990s, Time Warner shifted to a more digital focus for the entire company, culminating in the merger with America On Line, Inc. (AOL). In January 2000, the two companies announced the merger to create AOL Time Warner, and the newly combined company represented the first high-profile junction of old and new media companies. Levin’s address to stockholders in the 1999 Annual Report (released in 2000) stressed that with their combination, AOL and Time Warner together would “achieve … what neither company could have achieved on its own: a media-savvy, Internet-intelligent, customer-focused company with multiple revenue streams from branded subscriptions, advertising and commerce, and content.” Aligning with the premiere portal and brand on the Internet was thought to give the company the outlet it needed to flourish in the new media environment. Indeed, Levin identified this as the key benefit of the merger: “This strategic combination with AOL accelerates the digital transformation of Time Warner by giving our creative and content businesses the widest possible canvas.” Barry Meyer, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Warner Bros., echoed Levin’s statement in terms of how the Internet could aid film franchises such as Batman: “An expanded Internet platform offers us valuable opportunities for distribution, product promotion and brand extension now and in the future.”

The merger with AOL has been fraught with setbacks, as both the division and the entire company suffered enormous losses due to accounting scandals, a decrease in spending for advertising on the Internet, and the substantial loss of subscribers to AOL. Indeed, these problems led to AOL being dropped from the company’s name in late 2003, although AOL still remains a division of Time Warner at present. However, AOL has provided an “expanded Internet platform” for the company’s many products. For franchises such as Batman, this digital focus has extended the films’ promotional activities specifically into the Internet and other emerging technologies, such as mobile communications. Indeed, as Time Warner continues to expand, so too do the outlets available for promoting key products such as the Batman franchise.

With Batman arriving in theaters just a few months after the announcement of the merger of Time Inc. and Warner Communications Inc., the film franchise and the media conglomerate have been intimately linked from the very start. As Time Warner has expanded its multimedia capabilities since 1989, so too have the outlets available to promote the Batman film franchise and its associated products expanded as a result. In recent years, the franchise has adapted to engage in emerging technologies, including DVDs, the Internet, and mobile communications. And as The Dark Knights viral marketing campaign attests, Time Warner continues to expand its multimedia promotional activities in new directions. The results of this focus have yet to be seen for The Dark Knight, but if the grosses of Batman Begins are any indication, this focus on generating buzz a year before its release through the use of innovative campaigns on the Internet will most likely result in another profitable outing for the Batman franchise.

The Batman franchise was the company’s key franchise during the 1990s, and only after it faltered in 1997 did Time Warner expand its film franchise focus to include other properties. In recent years, Time Warner’s successful franchises have included a new Superman franchise, The Lord of the Rings trilogy (through subsidiary New Line Cinema), the Harry Potter films, The Matrix franchise, and the Ocean’s 11 franchise. Together, these franchises re-established Time Warner as the most formidable film company, as both Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema dominated the film industry. Since the early 1990s, other studios also have geared up their franchise focus in order to compete with Time Warner. However, no company has had as many successful film franchises as Time Warner since 1999, nor the consistent profits these films garner at the box office or in terms of merchandising dollars. Since the merger with AOL in 2000, Time Warner has remained the top entertainment company on the Fortune 500 list, surpassing other conglomerates such as Walt Disney and Viacom in total revenues. Led by its Filmed Entertainment division, Time Warner’s multimedia capabilities enable its key properties to flourish in the competitive marketplace.

Conclusion

By examining Time Warner’s key film franchise, Batman, as both it and the company have developed, its history provides a number of telling details about the current state of the industry. First, it is increasingly clear that discussing the film industry separate from other multimedia industries neglects their integrated nature. Not only are these industries housed in the same conglomerate through multiple subsidiaries, but also their promotional aspects are becoming more and more enmeshed throughout the life cycle of the film property. Second, multiple film franchises have become an essential ingredient in the construction of a media company’s slate. Where one key tentpole picture a year may have sufficed during much of the 1990s to ensure a company’s profitability, the competitive nature of the film industry now requires the conglomerates to create several franchises simultaneously in order to be profitable. Time Warner, for example, had two franchise films in 2005 in the top 10 grossing films for the year: Batman Begins and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Mike Newell), which emerged as the industry’s second highest grossing film in domestic theaters with over $275 million. Finally, the influx of independent film talent into franchise films has become an important ingredient in their profitability. Besides Nolan and Batman Begins, talent from independent film has been a key part of every Time Warner franchise, as noted previously.

As I discussed at the beginning of this chapter, Ben Bagdikian worried that the conglomerate’s growing use of synergy in 1989 would lead to “commercially safe, generic, all-purpose books, films and TV programs.” By 2005 and the arrival of Batman Begins, it was clear that synergy did work to create “commercially safe” films with a multitude of products available to help ensure profitability. What he could not have predicted in 1989 is the extent to which synergy was rooted into the film franchise’s preproduction, production, and marketing aspects. Nor could he have predicted this turn to independent film talent in heading these franchises. The unconventional nature of Batman Begins demonstrates, however, that these films do not have to be generic. Indeed, as the film market becomes more competitive, particularly with the increase in franchise films produced in the industry, product differentiation has become an essential aspect of the franchise film experience. As Time Warner and the Batman franchise exemplify, the conglomerates and their key products “react synergistically” to the challenges inherent in the developing industry.