Batmania: When Batman Ruled the Summer of 1989

JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

“Flop” is how marketing research group Marketing Evaluation Inc. assessed the box office potential of the 1989 Warner Bros. film Batman. The big-budget production, directed by Tim Burton and co-starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, was expected to be one of the rare times a major Hollywood studio took a comic book adaptation seriously. But according to the marketing data, the character of Batman was not as popular as the Incredible Hulk, who was then appearing in a slate of made-for-television movies. And he was only a quarter as appealing as the California Raisins, the claymation stars of advertising.

That prediction was made in 1988. The film was released on June 23, 1989, and went on to gross $253.4 million, making it the fifth most successful motion picture up to that point.

While Marketing Evaluation may have miscalculated the movie’s potential, they did hedge their bet. By the time profits from the movie’s merchandising—hats, shirts, posters, toys, bed sheets, etc.—were tallied, the company said, Warner Bros. could be looking at a sizable haul.

When the cash registers stopped ringing, the studio had sold $500 million in tie-in products, which was double the gross of the film itself.

In 1989, people didn’t merely want to see Batman—they wanted to wear the shirts, eat the cereal, and contemplate, if only for a moment, putting down $499.95 for a black denim jacket studded with rhinestones.

Batmania was in full swing. Which made it even more unusual when the studio later claimed the film had failed to turn a profit.

 

The merchandising blitz of Star Wars in 1977 gave studios hope that ambitious science-fiction and adventure movies would forever be intertwined with elaborate licensing strategies. George Lucas's space opera had driven audiences into a frenzy, leading retailers to stock up on everything from R2-D2 coffee mugs to plastic lightsabers. It was expected that other “toyetic” properties would follow suit.

They didn’t. Aside from 1982’s E.T., there was no direct correlation between a film’s success and demand for ancillary product. In 1984 alone, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were smash hits. None of them motivated people to flock to stores and buy Gizmo plush animals or toy proton packs. (Ghostbusters toys eventually caught on, but only after an animated series helped nudge kids in their direction.)

Warner Bros. saw Batman differently. When the script was being developed, producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber were urging writers to make sure scenes were aligned with planned merchandising. They scribbled notes insisting that no onscreen harm come to the Batmobile: It should remain pristine so that kids would want to grab the toy version. As Batman, millionaire Bruce Wayne had a collection of vehicles and gadgets at his disposal—all props that could be replicated in plastic. Batman's comic book origins gave him a unique iconography that lent itself to flashy graphic apparel.

In March 1989, 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, which would allow the film studio to capitalize on a deep bench of talent to help drive the “event” feel of the film.

Prince was signed to Warner's record label and agreed to compose an album of concept music that was tied to the characters; “Batdance" was among the songs and became a #1 hit. Their licensing arm, Licensing Corporation of America, contracted with 300 licensees to create more than 100 products, some of which were featured in an expansive brochure that resembled a bat-eared Neiman Marcus catalog. The sheer glut of product became a story, as evidenced by this Entertainment Tonight segment on the film's licensing push:

In addition to the rhinestone jacket, fans could opt for the Batman watch ($34.95), a baseball cap ($7.95), bicycle shorts ($26.95), a matching top ($24.95), a model Batwing ($29.95), action figures ($5.95), and a satin jacket modeled by Batman co-creator Bob Kane ($49.95).

The Batman logo became a way of communicating anticipation for the film. The virtually textless teaser poster, which had only the June 23 opening date printed on it, was snapped up and taped to walls. (Roughly 1200 of the posters sized for bus stops and subways were stolen, a crude but effective form of market research.) In barber shops, people began asking to have the logo sheared into the sides of their heads. The Batman symbol was omnipresent. If you had forgotten about the movie for even five minutes, someone would eventually walk by sporting a pair of Batman earrings to remind you.

At Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles, 7000 packs of Batman trading cards flew out the door. Management hired additional staff and a security guard to handle the crowds. The store carried 36 different kinds of Batman T-shirts. Observers compared the hysteria to the hula hoop craze of the 1950s.

One retailer made a more contemporary comparison. “There’s no question Batman is the hottest thing this year,” Marie Strong, manager of It’s a Small World at a mall in La Crosse, Wisconsin, told the La Crosse Tribune. “[It’s] the hottest [thing] since Spuds McKenzie toward the end of last year.”

 

By the time Batman was in theaters and breaking records—it became the first film to make $100 million in just 10 days, alerting studios to the idea of short-term profits—the merchandising had become an avalanche. Stores that didn’t normally carry licensed goods, like Macy’s, set up displays.

Not everyone opted for officially-licensed apparel: U.S. marshals conducted raids across the country, seizing more than 40,000 counterfeit Batman shirts and other bogus items.

Collectively, Warner raked in $500 million from legitimate products. In 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported that the studio claimed only $2.9 million in profit had been realized from merchandising and that the movie itself was in a $35.8 million financial hole owing to excessive promotional and production costs. It was a tale typical of creative studio accounting, long a method for avoiding payouts to net profit participants. (Nicholson, whose contract stipulated a cut of all profits, earned $50 million.)

Whatever financial sleight-of-hand was implemented, Warner clearly counted on Batman to be a money-printing operation. Merchandising plans for the sequel, 1992’s Batman Returns, were even more strategic, including a tie-in agreement with McDonald’s for Happy Meals. In a meta moment, one deleted script passage even had Batman’s enemies attacking a toy store in Gotham full of Batman merchandise. The set was built but the scene never made it onscreen.

The studio was willing to give Burton more control over the film, which was decidedly darker and more sexualized than the original. Batman Returns was hardly a failure, but merchandising was no longer as hot as it was in the summer of 1989. Instead of selling out of shirts, stores ended up marking down excess inventory. McDonald’s, unhappy with the content of the film, enacted a policy of screening movies they planned to partner with before making any agreements. By the time Warner released 1995’s Batman Forever, the franchise was essentially a feature-length toy commercial.

It paid off. Licensing for the film topped $1 billion. Today, given the choice between a film with Oscar-level prestige or one with the potential to have its logo emblazoned on a rhinestone jacket that people would actually want to buy, studios would probably choose the latter. In that sense, the Batmania of 1989 endures.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Miami Sound Machine: Remembering Don Johnson's Music Career

Don Johnson and Barbra Streisand in September 1988.
Don Johnson and Barbra Streisand in September 1988.
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Don Johnson had a problem. It was 1986, and Johnson was one of the hottest television stars of the era, starring as Miami cop Sonny Crockett on the hit NBC drama Miami Vice. Sporting pastel shirts and white suits, Johnson was a new breed of television authority figure. He had a gun, but he also had fashion sense.

Johnson's problem was not with the show, or with his shoulder pads, but the fact that he was beginning to speak about his music career and his debut album, Heartbeat. Already, Johnson was feeling the heat applied to actors who attempt to sing. It was made worse by the fact that Philip Michael Thomas, his co-star on Miami Vice, had also recorded an album, Living the Book of My Life, that had come and gone unceremoniously. Johnson wanted to be taken seriously as a singer. He wasn’t sure the media or his audience would let him try.

 

Before he had ever aspired to become an actor, Johnson was performing solos for choir anthems at the Baptist church in his small hometown of Galena, Missouri. The attention—and occasional quarter—he received, he later said, may have sparked his interest in becoming an entertainer. Impressing with a leading role in a production of West Side Story, he eventually won a drama scholarship to the University of Kansas and got a grant from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, which led him to Hollywood. From there he took on small roles, including one in 1975's Return to Macon County, which also featured Dickey Betts, guitarist for the Allman Brothers.

Johnson had always kept one eye on the music scene, using some of the proceeds from his acting jobs to pay for demo recordings. (He could sing, play guitar a little, and write.) With Betts, he co-wrote two songs, “Blind Love” and “Can’t Take It With You,” for the band’s 1979 album, Enlightened Rogues. Throughout the 1970s, he had also hung out with The Doors and befriended Frank Zappa, getting a self-admitted education in the hedonism of the music scene without actually appearing on stage.

Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas co-starred on Miami Vice for five seasons. Both also recorded albums.NBC Television/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Johnson filmed a number of failed television pilots before scoring Miami Vice in 1984. After the show was a certifiable hit, he was at a party with CBS Records head Walter Yetnikoff. The two began to discuss Johnson’s interest in music. Yetnikoff believed Johnson’s fame and ardent fan following could help make an album a hit. He signed Johnson, then 36, to a deal on the spot.

There were some obstacles. For one, Johnson had no band. To guide him through the process, he hired manager and record executive Danny Goldberg, who in turn enlisted Chas Sandford, a songwriter who had worked with Stevie Nicks and John Waite. Soon, a group of session players, including bassist Mark Leonard and keyboardist Bill Champlin, materialized. Johnson and Sandford began fielding pitches from songwriters, many of whom seemed too dependent on Johnson’s association with Miami Vice. Songs titled “Mr. Miami” and “Miami Don” were quickly discarded. Instead, Johnson pursued a contemporary rock playlist and got contributions from Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Dickey Betts. (Recording at Criteria studios in Miami, Johnson even roped in friend Whoopi Goldberg to appear on a track titled “Streetwise.”) Johnson himself wrote lyrics for “Heartbeat,” which was originally composed by drummer Curly Smith. It eventually became the title of the album.

With the help of media consultant Elliot Mintz, Johnson managed to avoid some of the baggage that accompanied actors recording albums by passing up Entertainment Tonight in favor of Rolling Stone and other media outlets that focused on music. He emphasized that music had run parallel to his acting career and charmed journalists by being self-effacing about his ambitions.

“People will say this [record] is bullsh*t and ‘the jerk ought to stay with what he does,’” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times. “But I’m someone who likes to take risks.”

"Heartbeat" quickly gained airplay on Top 40 radio stations; the song's popularity was bolstered by the fact that Johnson could actually sing. One writer for the Los Angeles Times played the album for people without telling them it was Johnson. All were impressed, then incredulous when they were told who they were listening to.

Johnson’s Miami Vice schedule made it nearly impossible to tour to support the album. Instead, he filmed a one-hour musical released on VHS that incorporated all 10 tracks from Heartbeat. (It also features an appearance by Giancarlo Esposito, who would go on to portray Gus Fring in Breaking Bad.) Most of the songs focused on love, with tracks like “Heartache Away,” “The Last Sound Love Makes,” and “Can’t Take Your Memory” showcasing Johnson’s vocal talents.

“Heartbeat” made it to number five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in October 1986, and Johnson experienced virtually none of the scorn reserved for actors who dared to try something different. He even performed a duet with then-girlfriend Barbra Streisand, '"Till I Loved You," in 1988, and released a second album, Let It Roll, in 1989. Johnson later appeared on stage in 2007 as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. Mostly, however, he was content to keep his musical interests private.

Heartbeat was ultimately a respectable endeavor for Johnson, though he wasn’t quite able to completely divorce himself from the reality of being a television star. On some versions of the album’s cover, a tag line made that extremely clear. It read: “Don Johnson: The Star of Miami Vice.”