In An Age of Franchises, Birds of Prey Dared To Be Different

There’s a lesson studios can learn from the comics companies they depend on for IP.

The title of the movie – Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – is intentionally ridiculous. It’s overly long, it mixes an obscure adjective with a haughty noun, and it is otherwise wholly absurd. Star Margot Robbie in particular spent a good portion of the movie’s press tour explaining what it meant and why it was relevant to her character.

It also seems it didn’t do much to engender awareness and interest in the general audience.

In theory it was safe to assume that people would make the connection between the new movie and 2016’s Suicide Squad, which marked the first appearance of Robbie as Harley Quinn. The marketing campaign run by Warner Bros. worked to reinforce that, especially visually as it featured a similar aesthetic on the posters and other collateral. But the proof is in the pudding, and while early tracking estimated an opening weekend of over $50 it only came in with $33 million, a low for the modern superhero film era.

Response since then has been interesting to watch. Some have claimed it signals a lack of audience interest in female-led super hero movies, which doesn’t bode well for the upcoming Black Widow. Some have blamed the marketing, but WB’s campaign was, in my opinion, the strongest it’s put together for a comic book movie since Wonder Woman.

A “lackluster” marketing campaign was one of the potential reasons for the lower-than-expected opening floated by Jeremy Fuster at The Wrap, but it’s hard to use “lackluster” to describe any campaign that included the stars, comics creators, soundtrack artists and others taking over a portion of L.A. for a bright and flashy “Harleywood” event a week before the movie opened. Others offered by Fuster include:

  1. Overshadowed by Oscar buzz. Plausible, but given the Oscars scored an all-time low broadcast rating it seems unlikely this was a significant problem.
  2. The R rating. Maybe, but that didn’t hurt Deadpool, Logan or Joker. Sure, it may have kept some of the younger people who were more inclined to see it away if so why didn’t it have the same effect on those other films?
  3. dc collectibles harley quinnHarley Quinn isn’t *actually* that popular. This one is ridiculous on its face. Spend two hours walking around the actual show floor of San Diego Comic-Con and you’ll see Harley is overrepresented among cosplayers. DC Comics, in the time I was working with the company, couldn’t publish enough Harley comics to keep up with demand. Her popularity was so intense she was among the first non-Justice League characters we launched a Facebook page for. She’s been added to every line DC Collectibles produces and has her own animated series on DC Universe.

A more likely reason for the movie’s lower-than-forecast performance at the box office, but one not considered in that piece and others, might be that the audience is losing interest in the super hero genre. Sure, the last couple Avengers movies have broken records, but haven’t had very long shelf lives. And while it’s true that BoP has the lowest opening of any DCEU movie, that’s been the case of every release since Suicide Squad. According to The Numbers:

  • Suicide Squad: $133 million
  • Wonder Woman: $103 million (-22%)
  • Justice League: $93 million (-19%)
  • Aquaman: $67 million (-28%)
  • Shazam: $53 million (-21%)
  • Birds of Prey: $33 million (-37%)

And then of course there’s the matter of the title.

In the days following the movie’s opening, reports circulated WB was changing the title to read “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey.” That turned out not to be the case but was instead simply a new listing offered by the studio to theater chains who were having problems with the long, overly-wordy original.

It can hardly be said that Harley’s presence in the movie wasn’t apparent by (checks notes) looking at literally anything in the marketing campaign. That being said, the more SEO-friendly title being used by theaters is more in line with a tradition long employed by both DC and Marvel when it comes to spin off books of various characters.

superman lois laneIn 2014 DC published the one-shot Superman: Lois Lane. While Lois is a popular enough character on her own, the reason for putting Superman’s name up front is simple: By doing so, comics retailers will stock the book alongside the rest of the Superman titles. Plus, anyone searching for “superman” on DC’s site or another such as Comixology will find that book among the results. Awareness is increased and, hopefully, sales follow along.

That’s hardly the first or only example of the tactic being used. Back in 1989 Marvel changed West Coast Avengers to Avengers West Coast for a similar reason, to try and bring more readers to the book. And DC using using “Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey” as the title of a new comic from the all-star team of Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti.

If studios like WB and Disney want to follow the lead of the comics publishers they own as important resources for IP on which to base media franchises, they would be wise to employ similar tactics. Disney seems to understand this, making sure to stick the character names in front of every movie title it releases.

Warner Bros. on the other hand has a spottier track record. Its much-anticipated Superman relaunch in 2013 was given a title that didn’t have the character’s name in it, which was actually appropriate since the movie didn’t have a recognizable version of Superman either.

But BoP didn’t seem to be like that. The original title might have been a bit cumbersome, but that was part of its beauty. It seemed to wear its poor SEO proudly, using it as part of an effort to create a unique brand identity for the film and its characters. Making sure the audience understood this was a team picture that also featured Harley Quinn striking out on her own was a central message of that name as well as much of the accompanying marketing.

In short, if you’re using the title to create a strong brand identity – as BoP did – embrace it. Otherwise, stick to what decades of comics publishers already know.

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