Monday, June 22, 2009

June 23rd, 1989 - twenty years later, how Batman changed the movie business.

Believe it or not, Tim Burton's Batman turns twenty-years old tomorrow. First of all, the sheer number of 'I can't believe this movie is twenty-years old' conversations only reminds us what a gloriously good year for movies that 1989 really was. A sampling of 'important' movies celebrating their twentieth anniversary - Field of Dreams, Do the Right Thing, Glory, Lonesome Dove, The Little Mermaid, When Harry Met Sally, and The Killer. The year's highest grossing film was arguably the most important. Not in terms of quality of course; it remains one of my favorite films but I'm not going to pretend that it was robbed at the Oscars. It left an indelible mark on the industry for the next twenty-years, in ways both very good and very bad. In the truest sense, Batman was a game-changer.

1) It made opening weekend king.
Most people don't realize this, but the opening weekend record was actually broken three times in a single month in the summer of 1989. The summer kicked off over Memorial Day weekend with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which grossed $29.3 million over the Fri-Sun portion of its five-day opening. Just three weeks later, Ghostbusters II just barely edged past with $29.4 million over its maiden days. But it was one week after that where Batman all but redefined just how much money a film could make over its first three days. It ended the weekend with a $40.4 million. It was the first mega-opening weekend for an industry that would eventually concentrate almost exclusively on those first three days as the cornerstone for a movie's success. Pure opening Fri-Sun insanity didn't completely take hold until summer 2001 (where three only somewhat anticipated movies - The Mummy Returns, Planet of the Apes, and Rush Hour 2 - opened north of $60 million), but Batman was the first to already be an unqualified smash hit after those first days. It surpassed its $35 million budget by Sunday. It crossed $100 million in ten days, crossed $150 million in nineteen days, and told Hollywood that short-term profitability was a possibility. Eventually, it would become the only goal.

2) It shortened the theater-to-video window.
The shocking record-breaking opening weekend had pundits predicting that it would overtake ET: The Extra Terrestrial ($399 million before the 2002 rerelease) as the highest-grossing movie of all time. But it was not to be, as it ended its run with $251 million - good enough for number 5. While the film had what today would be considered a leggy run (it dropped an average of 25% over its first six weekends), the film was played out quickly enough for Warner Bros. to announce its home video release for November 18th, 1989 (less than five months after the theatrical release). In an age where sell-through cassette tapes were still somewhat of a rarity, Warner Bros. made a point to rush out its theatrical champion onto the home video market well in time for the Christmas blitz. This set a pattern for the ever shortening window, which has been a key factor in declining theater attendance, a pattern that also effectively killed the second-run market less than a decade later. Ironically, this trend-setting experiment was a failure in this case. The videotape of Batman actually sold below expectations, and even the R-rated Lethal Weapon 2 (another Warner title, and possibly the first R-rated priced to buy VHS tape) outsold it. But the damage was done, and the theatrical release would eventually become a glorified marketing tool for the DVD release. That became even more of a problem when DVDs became so cheap to rent that consumers stopped buying them, leaving studios desperately in search of a new revenue stream.

3) It redefined the modern screen villain.
This honor must be shared with Die Hard, as they both helped rescue the screen villain from decades of general blandness. While there were exceptions here and there (Robocop, Star Wars), most onscreen antagonists were relatively generic punching bags and/or target practice for our stalwart heroes. Quick - name the villains from Lethal Weapon, The French Connection, or Beverly Hills Cop. But Die Hard and Batman made the iconic screen villain all the rage. Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber was every bit the superior of Bruce Willis's John McClane, and for the first time since Goldfinger, the modern-day villain was arguably cooler than the hero. A year later, Batman took the next logical step and crafted a villain who was more memorable than the hero, and one who got top-billing above the protagonist and exceeded him in screen time. Jack Nicholson's Joker made it cool for major actors to take villain roles in popcorn genre adventures.

As I wrote in a prior piece on comic book movie villains, Jack Nicholson broke the mold. Some may carp that it was just Jack being Jack in makeup, but we forgot how shocking this performance really was. There had never been a true comic book villain that was this over-the-top in cinema before. The nonstop cackling, the completely random and wholesale slaughter, and the genuinely perverse pathology, this was all new terrain for cinema. While his campier moments recall The Shining or The Witches of Eastwick, his quieter, subtler scenes actually resemble the work he did as Eugene O'Neil in Warren Beatty's Reds. Unlike Heath Ledger's deliberate, proselytizing anarchist, Jack Nicholson's Joker just committed mass murder purely for the hell of it. The success of Batman and the critical raves/popularity of Jack Nicholson's Joker ushered in a whole slew of scene-stealing villains, sometimes portrayed by actors who theoretically wouldn't be caught dead in a comic book or action adventure film. These days, when high-profile genre pictures are green lit, audiences expect, nay demand, that high-caliber actors like Jeff Bridges (Iron Man) and Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man) be on hand to attempt to steal the film away from our stalwart heroes.

4. Against type-casting is now cool.
It seems like an insane argument today, but the casting of Michael Keaton lit a firestorm of controversy that lasted right up until opening day. Hardcore Bat-fans, afraid that the film would be more like the 1960s Adam West TV show, howled in protest at the idea of Mr. Mom/Beetlejuice being cast as the Caped Crusader. Of course, Michael Keaton was also a capable dramatic actor, having just wrapped Clean and Sober. Once the first preview premiered (January 12th, 1989 on Entertainment Tonight), most fears were allayed as the 90-second clip showed both a viciously brutal Batman and a wantonly murderous Joker doing battle in a pitch-black Gotham landscape. Tim Burton's reasoning, that he wanted an ordinary-looking Bruce Wayne to become an extraordinary Batman, makes sense in hindsight and now is the norm for comic book casting (see - Toby McGuire as Peter Parker and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark). Thanks to Batman (and yes, Die Hard), modern-day action heroism was no longer reserved for tree-trunk muscle men and monosyllabic bodybuilders. By the time the 90s were in full-swing, it was cool for 'serious actors' like Nicolas Cage to try their hand in action/adventure properties. By the 2000s, it was absolutely commonplace for Matt Damon to be a razor-sharp CIA assassin or for Keanu Reeves to save the bus and then the world with his understated wit and befuddled exacerbation.

5. Merchandise and Hype rules the day.
Not since Star Wars had we seen such an avalanche of merchandising tie-ins for a single film (and much of the Star Wars merchandise came after the film's release). For about sixth months prior to the release, Bat-Mania was in full swing. Hundreds of T-shirts, action figures, collectors’ cups, and the like were on every shelf in every store. One cannot overestimate the sheer amount of tie-in merchandise or free media that this movie received prior to the release date. In many ways, it was the first preordained non-sequel blockbuster. It was the first modern film that everyone was told that they should see and that they would like. That's the norm today, with pre-sold concepts are arguably the only thing being made by Hollywood for much of the year. Although, to be fair, that's as much to blame on the corporatization of studios and the growing importance of overseas box office. Jaws and Star Wars were the first modern blockbusters by any plausible standard. But Batman was the first film that was absolutely expected to become a blockbuster.

6. It made the PG-13 into the must-have rating.
The PG-13 was only four years old in 1989, and summer 89 was its first test. License to Kill was the first James Bond film not to be rated PG. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ended up with a PG-13, which was appropriate since the gruesome, but PG-rated Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was primarily responsible for creating the rating in the first place. But Batman was the movie whose PG-13 received the most scrutiny. Why should a film based on a beloved superhero be so dark and violent as to not be appropriate for young children? Pundits wondered whether the violence and darkness would affect the movie's take, or whether its 'hardcore' content would actually help it overcome the stigma attached to the campy television show. In the end, Batman became the highest-grossing PG-13 movie of all time, a ranking it kept for four-years until Jurassic Park in 1993. In the years that followed, the all-inclusive rating became so popular over the next twenty years that the R-rated and/or PG-rated genre picture have since become an endangered species. Of course, the FCC rule changes in 2001 (spearheaded by Joe Lieberman) didn't help, mandating that R-rated films could only be advertised at certain times on television and certain ways online and on billboards. Today, alas, every studio all but forces filmmakers to squeeze into that PG-13 bracket whenever possible.

7. Finally, it made strip-mining the way to go.
Unfortunately, the last twenty-years have climaxed with an avalanche of adaptations of every conceivable preexisting property. Batman was one of the first presold properties that turned into a full-on franchise (Superman had tried it ten years earlier, to mixed success). Batman made it cool and theoretically profitable to adapt preexisting comic books for feature-film adaptation. The genie was out of the bottle and studios were soon digging for treasure in their archives. Classic TV shows (The Addams Family, The Fugitive), classic video games (Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat), and even actions figures (Transformers) were all the rage. Recycling became and now remains the dominant form of big screen entertainment. Now, thanks to a lack of imagination, as well as the sheer expense of making and marketing single feature film, studios are all but completely averse to anything that isn't theoretically presold. It's not Tim Burton's fault, anymore than Spielberg and Lucas are to blame for starting the blockbuster rush. But the 'so much money in so little time' performance of the first Batman created a whole new mentality that today grips the industry. The lessons learned included the ability to make money quickly, the ability to cash in on a presold property, and the importance of the opening weekend. Originality in Hollywood is all but dead, consumed by the allure of the preexisting franchise and the convenience of the presold product and preordained blockbusterdom that Batman first delivered. For better or for worse, Tim Burton's Batman changed the movie business forever.

Scott Mendelson

For more Batman-related essays of this nature, including a detailed character analysis of Bruce Wayne in the first four Batman pictures, an artistic defense of the 1960s TV show, and a debunking of the 'Dark Knight endorses Bush/Cheney' myth, go to Batman at the Movies at Mendelson's Memos.

5 comments:

Actionman said...

This is a FANTASTIC piece, Scott. Well done. A great read.

Colin said...

Great analysis on one of my favorite movies ever.

chuck said...

GREAT piece. I really enjoyed reading it!

Chuck
http://blog.entertainmenttodayandbeyond.com/2009/06/22/batman-1989-20-year-anniversary/

RovingWeaver said...

That was a GREAT piece. My sister and I each saw Batman seven times that summer (of course, she never paid for it and I paid for it 12 or 13 times, so we see who was the smarter of the two), and I had a friend who worked at the theater so I ended up with one of the posters (which was, of course, a much cooler way than buying it :-) ). That's actually why I found your blog - I just found the poster when moving and was trying to remember what year it came out, 89 or 90. Didn't realize this year had been the 20th anniversary! I feel so old. I need to finally get that baby framed!

Jihad Punk 77 said...

that was really interesting. I actually thought Star Wars did all those things... but I'm wrong.

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