A High Profile for a Hero of the Masses

Odds are, if you were to make an anonymous phone call to anyone anywhere in the United States, the person answering would know about the film "Batman." They could also tell you that it stars Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton and is scheduled to open this month.

Although "Batman's" producer Warner Bros. will not reveal research figures, studio officials claim the movie's awareness level is higher than any film in the studio's history, even higher, they contend, than pre-opening awareness of Columbia Pictures' 1984 release of the first "Ghostbusters" which became the highest-grossing comedy of all time at $220 million.

Of course it would be difficult to miss the "Batman" promos.

Anyone who has seen a movie in the last six months has probably caught a glimpse of the 30-second trailers, screening widely since Christmas.

"We have heavy cable television penetration here," said Jack Major, features editor of the Providence Journal in Rhode Island. "You can't even turn to a station without seeing 'Batman' commercials and interviews and film clips."

"I was talking to a comic book dealer in Texas," said Maggie Thompson, co-editor of the Iola, Wis.-based Comic Buyer's Guide weekly, "and he said, 'You remember smily faces and hula hoops? "Batman" is a hula hoop.' You don't have to be a comic book fan right now to want 'Batman' material. This phenomenon has grown to a level unlike anything we've seen before."

Like a dark Santa Claus carrying a bag full of merchandising goodies, "Batman" is swooping into shopping centers and landing on the chests of thousands of T-shirt buyers across the country. Thompson said when she received a special-order 'Batman' catalogue last month, it was as thick as the one that lists comic book material and merchandise for the entire industry.

"We sell 36 different kinds of 'Batman' shirts," said Bill Liebowitz, owner of Golden Apple Comics shop on Los Angeles' Melrose Avenue. "We got a call from a woman in Florida who ordered a shirt because she felt it would make her son more popular at school. Another woman came in and bought a shirt for her son who had heard about 'Batman' in the Philippines."

In a six-day period, Liebowitz sold out nine cases--almost 7,000 individual packets--of "Batman" bubble gum cards.

Recently, Liebowitz has hired a security guard and doubled his staff on weekends to handle the crowd overflow that jams his store.

Out on the streets the mania is the same. Since May, more than 1,200, 6-foot-high "Batman" posters have been stolen from display cases in New York subway stations and bus shelters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and St. Louis.

"This is a first. We've had posters stolen before--Paramount's U2 'Rattle and Hum' was a target," said Doreen Roberts, vice president and general sales manager of Gannett Transit billboard company. "But never like this. This is unheard of."

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Comic Buyer's Guide reports that Batman back issues that were almost impossible to sell just a few years ago at any price are selling briskly and prices are climbing rapidly.

" 'Batman: The Dark Knight Returns' is going for $35 for a first printing," Thompson said. "That came out three years ago with a cover price of $2.95. The Batman issue in which Robin died is now selling for $30. That came out less than a year ago with a cover price of 75 cents."

In 1984, "Uncanny X-Man," the perennial comic book leader for nearly a decade, averaged $378,135 in paid circulation. In the same year, "Batman" averaged $89,217. Although figures are difficult to confirm, every retailer interviewed claims that "Batman" has recently overtaken "X-Man" and is now the top-selling comic book title. And they attribute much of that success to the upcoming film.

"A lot of times I'm conservative, because when these science fiction or comic movies come out, they don't really do anything for business," said Paul Castrovillo, owner of New Mythology Comics and Science Fiction in Boise, Ida. "I probably could have sold four or five times as much 'Batman' material as I ordered, but I had to order most of it three or four months ago when information about the movie was just beginning to leak out."

Boise deejay Jack Armstrong, whose station KF95 is supporting a "Batman" art contest that Castrovillo is sponsoring, said listener reaction has been high. "Comments have been pouring in from callers ever since we started playing Prince's Batman dance song. . . . People call in and want to know things like: 'Does this movie happen after the death of Boy Wonder? Is it before Boy Wonder? Is this a continuation of the comic book?' "

About five months ago, Los Angeles' KTTV Channel 11 began broadcasting "Batman," starring Adam West and Burt Ward, on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. Program director Don Tillman denied the suggestion that "Batman" was put on the air to capitalize on renewed interest created by the movie.

"We've owned 'Batman' for a number of years, and the reason we brought it back is because we're doing a lot of nostalgic programming on weekends," Tillman said.

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If there's any doubt that the world is anticipating "Batman," it seems clear that Warner Bros. is anticipating the world.

Anyone who calls New York's DC Comics--owned by the studio's parent company, Warner Communications Inc.--with "Batman" questions are immediately connected to a prerecorded "Batline."

"We have been inundated with phone calls, so we have set up this phone message for your convenience," a voice cheerily states. After referring all inquiries to Warner Bros., the voice continues, "Please be patient. Studio personnel are doing their best to handle requests. Please do not call us back for intervention, even though you might wish to."

A follow-up call to Warner Bros. connects the caller to another pre-recorded message asking for a name and number where the caller can be reached.

"We have to do that because of the sheer volume of phone calls we receive," said Charlotte Gee, Warner Bros. vice president of publicity and promotion. "Our New York office got a call last week from a member of the public who offered to pay $250 for a pair of tickets to see an advance screening."

Theater owners, movie critics and Batman fans cite a variety of reasons for the advance interest. Some feel the buzz is due to the presence of Nicholson as the Joker; others attribute it to the popularity of the TV show; and most cite the wild, white-knuckle trailers that have been showing in theaters.

"Batman has experienced a renaissance the last few years," said Jeff Walker, a marketing consultant for Warner Bros., who has spent much of the last year traveling to trade shows and conventions touting "Batman."

"Batman's impact on popular culture has increased dramatically," he said. "The demographics for people who read comics has gotten older. They're a literate bunch--we're not talking about just kids anymore."

Tom Fagan, a 58-year-old promotions director living in Rutland, Vt., was voted Chief Batmanian in 1963 by the readership of the now-defunct Batmania fan magazine. In his Batman collection, Fagan owns Detective Comic No. 27--the debut of Batman--valued at $35,000.

"You can say 'Shazam!' over and over and you'll never become Capt. Marvel," Fagan said. "But the thing about Batman is, it's possible that anyone with determination can train his body to athletic perfection and become a hero--most of us tried that for a few days, then gave up and kept reading Batman. We always knew that at any time Batman could be injured. He was vulnerable."

"Midnight Caller," published by 29-year-old Martin Noreau, a graphic artist living in St. Hubert, Canada, is the only known Batman fanzine.

"We're basically a bunch of guys who like Batman and want an opportunity to express ourselves through writing or drawing him," said Noreau, who edits and mails out the 130-page digest from his small apartment. "Midnight Caller" goes out quarterly to about 200 reader/contributors, mostly from the United States.

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