BATFAX / Kapow] The impact of a hit: Sheila Johnston counts the cost of the return of Batman to the cinema - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

BATFAX / Kapow] The impact of a hit: Sheila Johnston counts the cost of the return of Batman to the cinema

JUST how much is the Dark Knight worth? In 1989 Batman garnered dollars 251m in US ticket sales and around dollars 140m overseas. Forecasts for Batman Returns vary. Each week Variety asks a range of industry insiders, from agents to producers to attorneys, to rate the prospects for a major new film. Prior to its release nobody expected Batman Returns to surpass the original: their estimates ranged from dollars 250m down to dollars 175m.

Since then, however, the film has opened in the US (on 19 June) to record box-office - it was launched on no less than 15 per cent of all screens - and had grossed nearly dollars 124m as of Monday.

'The first film died relatively quickly,' says Julian Senior, Vice President of European Marketing for Warner Brothers, who hopes, naturally, for even greater things for Batman Returns. 'This one, we believe, will go on.' Once sequels were automatically expected to do worse than the originals; this is no longer necessarily true. When the first film appears on video, it helps build an audience for its successors. The summer's other American blockbuster, Lethal Weapon 3, is a prime example. All these figures, incidentally, exclude video revenue (dollars 140m in the US; dollars 45.50m worldwide); and an unknown amount from television, cable and satellite sales. A ballpark estimate of Batman's total revenue in all the media would be upwards of dollars 2bn.

Meanwhile the budget of Batman Returns remains shrouded in mystery: one Warners executive puts it at dollars 42m, but some trade papers have estimated it as high as dollars 80m and speculate that around dollars 12m was spent on US advertising alone.

THE biggest bucks of all spring from Batman's licensing and merchandising operation. The first film earned about dollars 1bn worldwide in related product sales, of which Warners stands to reap 10 per cent in royalties. As a rule of thumb, piracy accounts for 15- 20 per cent of the official revenue. So, if Batman merchandise earned dollars 1bn, that would mean the pirates pocketed a cool dollars 150m-dollars 200m. T-shirts are the most easily pirated items (in 1989 Batman caused a 'global shortage of plain black T-shirts') and one source reckons that, in addition to 20 million licensed T-shirts sold last time round, another 10 million bootlegs changed hands.

This time a hologrammed logo has been issued to deter pirates, but the battle continues. This year Labour got into trouble over its 'VAT-man' election poster and was instructed by Warners' legal department to make a donation to charity.

When does parody become piracy? Sarah Davies of Warner Brothers has no doubts: 'If they are capitalising on one of our characters for a promotion, then it's illegal and we will take it further.'

COMPANIES were reluctant to be associated with the first film - they considered it to be 'too dark' and, according to Davies, many licencees were found only after Batman had launched. 'Now they are clamouring to get on board.' Yet, paradoxically, Batman Returns is an even gloomier, more perverse, more adult film - which may enhance its overseas box- office prospects. Batman did slightly less well than other US movies in Europe, compared to its success in the US. 'Batman's an American comic- book character,' says Senior, explaining his greater popularity there. 'And American audiences tend to be much younger: Batman was more kid- oriented. Batman Returns is different, quite different - it's much darker and will probably appeal to an older, more sophisticated audience.'

The film will open in Europe over the next few months and will eventually reach some Eastern European countries; but not Russia, where there is the problem of converting revenue into hard currency and where, Senior says, 'my personal feeling is that there are more important things for people to do right now with their leisure money.'

THE New York headquarters of DC Comics, which sells Batman in his print incarnation, was tight-lipped about earnings; they have 'certain restrictions on information'. In Wisconsin, Don Thompson, editor of the Comic Buyer's Guide, estimates a 'pretty solid' circulation of about 250,000 per title - there are four, each appearing at monthly intervals - at dollars 1.25 a copy. 'I wouldn't say that the circulation has shot up as a result of the film, although there has been some improvement. A successful TV show, yes. Twenty-five years ago it had a very definite effect on sales.'

With the exception of a new Batman title being introduced in the autumn on the back of the forthcoming animated television series, which will reflect its simpler graphic style, Thompson does not feel that the Batman movies have influenced the look of the books. 'Exactly the opposite: their tone was affected by the comics. I can't say that Jack Nicholson influenced any of the Joker stories; the books were already making him a nastier character before the movies were made.' Thompson's verdict on Batman Returns: 'It's not Citizen Kane, but people expecting to see a Batman movie will see a Batman movie.'

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