Entertainment Magazine

Batman 75: How Batman Returns Pissed Off McDonald’s & Cost Tim Burton His Job

Posted on the 27 December 2014 by Weminoredinfilm.com @WeMinoredInFilm

Tim Burton recently told Yahoo Screen that he was kicked off the Batman franchise after Batman Returns because he had pissed off McDonald’s. That’s actually a very old story, but if you don’t know it let’s look back on it.

Once upon a time, Entertainment Weekly had a regular feature called “Parent’s Guide to Entertainment” which was, well, pretty self-explanatory. If you needed to know whether some new film was appropriate for your kids the “Parent’s Guide to Entertainment” was all you needed to look at. Here’s what it said about Batman Returns back in the summer of 1992:

What It’s About: The darkest Dark Knight ever saves Gotham City again, this time from the mutated flippers of Penguin and the psycho-erotic claws of Catwoman.
Will Kids Want to Watch It? All those McDonald’s tie-ins aren’t for nothing. But be forewarned: Returns has more unnerving violence and more sophisticated sexuality than its predecessor, so it might be a bit much for most kids under 10 or 11.
MPAA: PG-13.
Sex/ Nudity: A woman in a ripped cat outfit licks a guy in a rubber bat costume on the face. Now that’s kinky.
Drugs/Alcohol: None.
Violence/Scariness: This pretty much doubles as a plot synopsis: Skeleton-clown creatures attack Gotham City, two guys catch on fire, a woman stun-guns a bad guy, a severed hand is shown, bad guy Max pushes his secretary out a window, Penguin has the mayor’s baby kidnapped, Catwoman slices up somebody’s face, Penguin bloodily bites a guy’s nose, Batman beats up and blows up some more bad guys, Penguin knocks out a woman who falls to her death, Penguin opens fire on a crowd, Penguin plots to murder children in their sleep on Christmas Eve, Penguin kills a clown, a major electrocution results in one charred body.
Profanity: About three harsh words, plus several lewd sexual innuendos from Penguin.
Mature Themes: Good versus evil — in the same person.

I think I would have definitely decided against letting my young kids see that movie by the time I got to the part about “a severed hand is shown” and especially by “Penguin plots to murder children in their sleep on Christmas eve.” That, to me, would have just screamed endless nights of my kids balled up in a corner of their bed, rocking back and forth and mumbling, “Can’t go to sleep, Penguin will kill me” ala Bart Simpson the time he thought his clown-themed bed would eat him the moment he dared fall asleep.

Simpsons Clown Will Eat meHowever, who am I to talk? I wasn’t a parent back then; I was still just a little kid, a little kid who got to have McDonald’s for dinner every Friday night if he was good during the week.  My brothers and I would scarf down our French fries, hamburgers, and/or chicken nuggets while sitting in front of the living room television watching ABC’s TGIF line-up, which in 1992 consisted of Family Matters, Step By Step, Perfect Strangers, and the short-lived Look Who’s Talking TV show Baby Talk. I remember it all very vividly, and in the months prior to the release of Batman Returns every single item we bought from McDonald’s came with some kind of Batman picture on it:

batman returns mcdonalds1992batmancupslgBatman Returns Toys

So, at least for a short while there every “Did I do that?” on Family Matters came as I was starting at the back of a box of fries telling me all about Catwoman just as every “Don’t be ridickulas!” from Balki in Perfect Strangers became background noise to me playing with my awesome new Batman Happy Meal toys. I had never read a Batman comic book before nor had I ever really seen the Adam West TV Show. Batman: The Animated Series wasn’t on the air yet. The only Batman I knew was the 1989 version, but looking back at it the only thing I actually remember about living through that movie’s release is that I got a toy version of Batman and Joker from the film. I used to make them a tag team and pit them against my other toys in wrestling matches [Spoiler Alert: The Ninja Turtles always seemed to win].  But my earliest memory of actually actively wanting to see a Batman film was in the summer of ’92, and a large part of it was because by putting Batman on damn near everything they sold McDonald’s suddenly made Batman the coolest thing in the world to me. I absolutely had to see that freakin’ movie, and I don’t think that my parents had any idea what we were really walking into. Heck, even if they had read EW’s “Parent’s Guide to Entertainment” beforehand I don’t know if they could have kept me from seeing it, not with the way I was pestering them about it.

What we didn’t know at that time was that when McDonald’s started gearing up to promote its fun-for-the-family Batman Returns tie-ins Tim Burton was still haggling with the MPAA over the film’s rating. They were going to give him an R, the kiss of death for a comic book movie’s box office prospects. He narrowly avoided such an unfortunate fate by agreeing to cut bits of violence here and there, such as a “sweeping master shot of a circus-gang member setting Gothamites on fire.” Apparently, McDonald’s didn’t know about any of that because while they were preparing their big push of Batman Returns tie-ins they had yet to see an actual rough cut of the film. So, they legitimately did not know that they were aligning themselves with a movie which was going to make little kids cry their eyes out in theaters.


Why didn’t McDonald’s make a special Penguin action figure that spewed black bile from its mouth when you hit a button on its back?

I didn’t cry during Batman Returns, and I don’t recall if anyone else in our theater did. I think I was just a hair too old (or had simply seen too many Schwarzenegger films, especially the Terminator ones) to be genuinely scared by Batman Returns. I was, however, pretty creeped out by just about every single thing related to the Penguin, and I absolutely did not understand any of the sexual imagery or innuendos hovering around Catwoman. I didn’t understand for one minute how some army of alleycats managed to magically revive a very dead Selina Kyle and turn her into Catwoman in the first place. However, I thought it was cool when the Penguin briefly remote-controlled the Batmobile, and it was fun seeing Batman get his butt kicked by Catwoman or Bruce Wayne taking his Bat mask off to try and get through to Selina at the end. I walked away from it all a little creeped out, hoping that I’d never have to see Danny DeVito in anything ever again, but ultimately looking forward to a sequel featuring more of Batman and Catwoman.

In that respect, my parents were among the fortunate ones. I was probably too young for them to have taken me to see it, but I didn’t walk away from it traumatized, although the image of the Penguin biting that dude’s nose stuck with me for a while (It turns out that bit was something Danny DeVito came up with on set; Tim Burton had very little to do with it). To put it another way, my parents didn’t have to write a letter of protest to McDonald’s or Warner Bros. for marketing a PG-13 film to little kids. Many, many others did, though. NBC reporter Faith Daniels famously devoted a segment of her talk show A Closer Look With Faith Daniels to the topic, titling it “Parents Against Batman Returns.” She argued, “It’s fine to make Batman Returns an adult film, but don’t market it to kids. It’s rated PG-13, but who’s buying the action toys? Not 13-year-olds.”

sad-ronald-mcdonald-614xaMcDonald’s couldn’t simply admit, “Hey, we’re pissed too. We didn’t know what kind of film this was until it was too late.” Oh, and they were super pissed. Warner Bros. had actually pledged to match media dollars for Batman Returns with McDonald’s, but reneged on that pledge when parent’s groups started blasting the film in the media. Again, though, no one knew that at the time. All you had to go on was a rather silly sounding statement from a McDonald’s spokeswoman, “The objective of the (Happy Meal) program was to allow young people to experience the fun of Batman the character. It was not designed to promote attendance at the movie. It was certainly not our intent to confuse parents or disappoint children.”

At that time, the Happy Meal program was geared exclusively to kids between the ages of 1 and 10, and their argument was essentially that the Batman Returns tie-in was kind of a way of letting the younger kids participate in the Batman phenomenon since they wouldn’t get to see the movie. Plus, Batman: The Animated Series was only 2 months away from premiering at that point meaning you could argue they were simply promoting Batman in general. After all, none of the Happy Meal ads running on daytime TV featured any footage from Batman Returns (just a lot of Ronald McDonald). However, everyone knew McDonalds’ explanation was pretty much bullshit. The ads I actually remember seeing aired at night during TGIF, and featured plenty of footage not just from the film but also commercial-exclusive footage filmed on a special portion of the Batman Returns set with a Gotham City McDonald’s in the background:

There’s nothing about that one that is necessarily totally aimed at kids, but the next one with the toys is a little harder to let off the hook:

All of this led those in the industry and, indeed, at Warner Bros. to openly question whether or not Tim Burton had inadvertently killed the Batman franchise. McDonald’s could weather bad publicity just fine, and Batman Returns was certainly going to turn a profit. All told, it grossed $162.83 million in the U.S., $268.83 million worldwide against a combined production/marketing budget of $100 million. Moreover, Warner Bros. had secured a ridiculously generous profit split with the theaters who would normally have only given them half of the ticket sales. However, because the first Batman had been such a huge hit, grossing what would be the equivalent of $511m at current ticket prices from the domestic market alone, everyone expected big things from Batman Returns. So, the theater owners agreed to let the studio take an unheard of 65% of the ticket sales because, as a media-research firm analyst at the time concluded, “The owners had assumed that a smaller piece of the enormous Batman Returns pie would still be a hefty portion. Nobody expected that pie to shrink to crumbs so rapidly.”

And shrink it did. It seems quaint now, but everyone was stunned when after its record-setting $45m opening weekend Batman Returns slumped by at least 40% in each subsequent weekend. An informal Entertainment Weekly survey of local movie theater attendees a month after the film’s release revealed some damning quotes:

“The story made no sense,” says Jay Klausenstock, a 33-year-old radio-ad-sales manager in San Fransisco. ”In fact, nothing made sense. I’ll never see a Batman movie again.” Renee Greene of Chicago says, ”I’m sick of all the ads. It’s hard for parents whose kids drive them nuts wanting to go to McDonald’s to get all the stupid cups.” Some younger kids were frightened by the subplot involving kidnapped babies and grossed out by Danny DeVito’s bile-spewing Penguin. ”It made me sort of sick,” says Greene’s 9-year-old son, Michael.”

Warner Bros. was simply selling way too many Batman shirts, toys, and trinkets to ever dream of killing their cash cow. The first Batman movie was really the movie producers Jon Peters and Peter Gruber forced Tim Burton to make. They bolted after that film’s ginormous success to take over (and ultimately almost destroy) Sony Pictures, leaving less of a buffer between Burton’s vision and the studio’s goals for Batman Returns. So, for better or worse, Batman Returns was finally a Tim Burton Batman movie. He managed to alienate audiences, piss off corporate partners (McDonald’s), and drive a wedge between the people making the movie (Warner Bros.) and the people showing it (the theaters). It seemed clear what had to be done: Burton had to go.

Not that anyone told him that, though.  Not directly. Not at first.  In the Batman Forever DVD Special features, he explains exactly how he figured it out during his first meeting with Warner Bros. to discuss Batman 3, “I’m going, ‘We could do this, we could do that,’ and they go like, ‘Tim, don’t you want to do like a smaller movie now?’…About a half hour into the meeting, I go, ‘You don’t want me to make another one, do you?’…And so we just stopped it right there.”

Burton remained involved as a producer, but that “small film” they told him to go make to recharge his battery ended up being his masterpiece, Ed Wood. That worked out pretty well for him. Of course, Batman 3 turned into Batman Forever, which grossed nearly $80m more than Batman Returns worldwide and managed to avoid offending any of the big money people. In fact, McDonald’s had learned from their unfortunate Batman Returns fiasco; they made dang sure they were allowed to review the Batman Forever script before production even began. Before long, the toy companies were even dictating which costumes Batman would wear in Batman & Robin, and the whole thing completely fell apart. But that all started because no one seemed to be paying attention to the fact that Tim Burton was daring to make Batman Returns into an honest-to-goodness Tim Burton movie, and after that they weren’t going to make that mistake again.

What about you? What’s your earliest memory of seeing Batman Returns? Did you cry? Were you an adult when you saw it? If you were AND you cried, um, why? Have you actually never seen it? If so, boy has this likely been a confusing article to read. Let me know in the comments.

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