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Holy Tie-In! Batman Bores Consumers Just as Retailers Prepare for Film

February 28, 1989|BRUCE HOROVITZ

Atop research firm recently asked people across America to rate their favorite cartoon and comic strip characters--including Batman. But the responses were the kind that could drive the folks at Warner Bros. and DC Comics batty.

After all, the film company not only plans to release a $30-million Batman motion picture in June, but through Warner Communications' licensing arm, more than 100 licensees have paid fees to manufacture Batman products that range from plastic car mats to thermos bottles decked with pictures of the Caped Crusader. Meanwhile, DC Comics also has big plans to market Batman during this, his 50th anniversary.

But in the national survey of 1,800 consumers of all ages, Batman rated a real dud.

In fact, the California Dancing Raisins--who topped the list--proved to be more than four times more popular than Batman. Indeed, Batman couldn't even muster an "average" score with consumers but rated about even with such snoozers as Moon Mullins, the Incredible Hulk and Beany and Cecil. Worse yet, Batman even fell slightly below such luminaries as Deputy Dawg, Betty Boop, and yes, even Chicken Little.

"Don't buy any stock in Batman," said Steven Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluation Inc., the Port Washington, N.Y., research firm that conducted the survey. "In fact, if I had a chance to make a Batman lamp or an Alf lamp, I'd run like hell to Lorimar to make an Alf lamp and run the other way from Batman."

Maybe so. But don't expect these results to drive Batman back into the bat cave.

In fact, one licensing expert predicts that Batman accessories could post retail sales exceeding $150 million over the next year. And officials at Warner Bros. and its sister company, LCA Entertainment, say Batman still has plenty of fight left. In fact, they say, enthusiasm for Batman generally goes in seven-year cycles--and that the latest cycle will peak about the time the movie starring Michael Keaton as Batman is released this summer.

"I'm not worried about it," said Barbara Sims, director of marketing at LCA Entertainment. "Bat man is a long-term classic character who has his highs and lows. Remember, this is not a character that has a theme park named after it."

DC Comics, which is also owned by Warner Communications, seems certain that Batman accessories will fly. The company has even licensed Ballantine Books to publish a coffee table book on Batman's history that is expected to retail for more than $35.

"We see this as the year when Batman has evolved from a cartoon character into a fashion statement," said Mary Moebus, vice president of licensing at New York-based DC Comics. "Batman is moving out of the trendy under-culture into the mass market."

Certainly, Batman's new popularity with teen-agers got a lift when a member of the popular rock group U2 wore a Batman T-shirt in "Rattle and Hum," a documentary film about the group's 1987 world tour. Even the makers of the T-shirt were surprised because they didn't pay anything to have the shirt so prominently displayed in the film.

Now, some big retailers are climbing aboard the Batman bandwagon. Both the Macy's and K mart retail chains recently began to stock limited amounts of Batman T-shirts and sweat shirts. And very soon, Batfans will be able to purchase everything from Batman suspenders to Batman eyeglasses.

One licensing official predicts that there'll be a big demand for Batman accessories. "I think the Batman movie will create a lot of interest in Batman merchandise," said Murray Altchuler, executive director of the New York-based Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Assn.

But Altchuler, who once worked for LCA, where he licensed the Batman TV series, said the reaction may not be exactly what Warner Bros. expects. "If I was seeking a license for Batman, I'd be quicker to jump on board with the old Batman property than with the new movie."

It seems that the Batman in the motion picture is a far different--if not darker--character than the campy Batman most people remember from the 1960s TV series. The two even dress very differently. The motion picture Batman is much like the comic book character, who wears a dark outfit, while Batman from the TV show wore a bright blue outfit with a flashy logo painted across his chest. What's more, Batman's ever-popular sidekick, Robin, doesn't even appear in the movie.

That's why one computer software company has decided to create a Batman video game that will be modeled after the comic book series and not the new film. "We're riding the wave of Batmania, but we're not affiliated with the movie," said Jim Whims, general manager of San Jose-based Data East USA Inc.

Next week, Data East plans to ship the $25 video game to toy chains nationwide. And Whims, who co-founded Worlds of Wonder, says he hopes to sell up to 60,000 games. "When you get past the Batman name, all the player looks for is how the game plays," said Whims. "If it doesn't play well, it will quickly get killed."

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