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.

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – Marketing Recap

You can read my full recap of the marketing campaign for Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) at The Hollywood Reporter.

Online and Social

The key art from the theatrical poster is used on the splash page of the movie’s official website, which otherwise features mostly just the standard marketing content.

Media and Press

While there had been plenty of chatter from Robbie in particular ahead of this, the first major beat for the movie came when the cast of characters was revealed. That news was largely well-received, particularly in that it included Montoya, an openly-gay character. It was followed a bit later by the news Black Mask would be the villain of the story.

Winstead spoke about the training she was about to undergo to get in shape for the role shortly after news of her casting was announced, which landed as she was promoting All About Nina last year. A bit later Robbie revealed the movie’s full title, which was quite cumbersome but also pretty great, on Instagram. While promoting Mary Queen of Scots, Robbie spoke to how that title was meant to lighten up what otherwise might be more serious material.

Screenwriter Christina Hodson offered occasional updates as she was being interviewed while Bumblebee was in theaters.

Late January saw Robbie release first looks of Harley’s new look for the movie both as a photo and a video.

During the promotion for a new Netflix show, Winstead offered more thoughts on the tone of the film and its story. A profile of Robbie had her saying this movie’s version of Harley Quinn would be a bit toned down, with the male gaze removed from the director’s chair.

Her approach to playing Huntress and more was covered by Winstead while she was promoting Gemini Man.

In December Yan commented on the unexpected array of films she pulled inspiration from for this movie.

During the press cycle for Bombshell, Robbie was also interviewed about how she fell in love with the role of Harley Quinn while shooting the first Suicide Squad and how she wanted this movie to show a different side of the character.

That topic was central to a Variety cover story featuring the actor where she spoke about how she wanted Harley to evolve from that movie, especially with the addition of an all-female crew around her. She also spoke in her role as a producer on the film and how she teamed up with Yan and more.

An interview with Yan and Hodson had them talking about how they wanted to subvert many of the usual comic book tropes and take advantage of having a group of all-female anti-hero protagonists, all of whom had issues and messier personalities than might be commonly found in such movies. Yan also discussed how she got involved in the project to begin with and how she turned to director Patty Jenkins for advice on how to steer such a massive ship.

At the #Harleywood premiere late last month, the stars talked about how excited they were for people to see the movie, why the over-the-top violence was appropriate for the story and how the two main bad guys probably have some romantic feelings for each other. Recording artist Saweetioe was there too and talked about getting involved in the movie’s soundtrack.

The cast, often as a group, appeared on shows like “Good Morning America,” “The View” and others in the days before the movie hit theaters. McGregor also appeared on “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night.” Robbie also stopped by “The Tonight Show,” as did Winstead.

They also were featured on a Glamour cover story, while Smollett-Bell was interviewed on her own about what it was like to bring Black Canary to the big screen. Other interviews included Yah, Hodson and the cast talking about Harley’s journey and how they wanted to make the character work on her own. Winstead commented on the fun of having a mostly-female cast and crew as well and more.

Players of Fortnight could unlock an exclusive Harley Quinn skin.

More details on the new Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey comic from Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti here.

The movie’s costume designer was interviewed on pulling from various sources of inspiration from cartoons to movies in creating Harley’s costumes. How the story depicts violence against women and what the bad guy’s motivations are were part of this discussion with the cast.

What future there might be for a Harley/Poison Ivy partnership movie – one of the projects in development at one point – was speculated on by Yan. Winstead also commented on how she never questioned the idea that a comic action movie would have wide audience appeal.

Overall

Picking Up The Spare

Hodson spoke about the movie in general but that viral moment featuring a hair tie in a new interview.

Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti talk about their new “Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey” comic.

The curating of the movie’s soundtrack to match the movie’s theme of women seizing their moment is covered here.

AMC shared an exclusive conversation with some of the stars while IMAX had Yan encouraging audiences to check the movie out on the big big screen.

How that advance screening for DC Universe members went down was shared by DC.

Another interview with Yan had her commenting on how she wanted to make Harley more authentic and not as male-gaze-driven. She also went in-depth on a key action sequence from the film.

What training she did for the role of Cass Cain was the subject of an interview with Basco.

A new video promo for the movie’s star-studded soundtrack was released.

We’re About To Get a Lot of Harley Quinn

While promoting I, Tonya, star Margot Robbie has also hinted at there being a lot of Harley Quinn stories in our cinematic future. Specifically, she said there’s a separate movie she’s developing that would be in addition to 1) the Suicide Squad sequel, 2) the “Gotham City Sirens” movie that would presumably also feature Poison Ivy and other female characters and 3) a Harley/Joker movie that would reteam her with Squad costar Jared Leto.

Nerdist News responded with a headline many were probably thinking: Do we need four Harley Quinn movies? That sentiment has been echoed elsewhere and I find the thinking curious.

First, we’re never asked similar questions when there are plans for male-starring franchises. Or if that question is asked, it’s usually discarded pretty quickly because whatever hesitation there might be gives way easily to fan-driven anticipation. Yeah, we were all wondering what Warner Bros. could possibly be thinking with its announcement of five Fantastic Beasts films, and Universal’s Dark Universe plans were met with more than a few “skeptical eyeball emoji” reactions. But then there were more substantive discussions about them. Let’s just be careful we’re not applying a sexist double-standard here.

Second, that kind of skepticism shows a lack of understanding of how popular this character is.

I don’t think I’m betraying any trade secrets when I say that in my time working with DC Entertainment on its social media marketing program I got a first-hand look at the wild and passionate fandom that exists around Harley Quinn. In my first experience at San Diego Comic-Con, I was taken aback by just how popular the character was with fans. With a few exceptions, she was one of the most common cosplay subjects I encountered.

What struck me was that no two Harleys were alike. There were a few cosplayers that took “traditional” approaches to their outfits, modeling the look seen in “Batman: The Animated Series” or in her 2011 Suicide Squad incarnation or something otherwise rooted in an existing design. But the vast majority, it seemed to me, were making Harley their own. There were steampunk, biker, Victorian and countless other variations on the theme that had never been seen anywhere before. She was being used, it seemed, as a blank slate for women to use to express themselves in some way while also attaching themselves to the core tenets and characteristics of what made Harley, Harley.

 

harley quinn sdcc
Taken at SDCC 2015

 

As I became more familiar with the fandom and the business I learned there was tremendous demand for Harley merchandise. That’s evident in how DC has published more books starring her in the last four or five years as well as increasing the number of collectibles and consumer products for her, as well as her presence in more of the animated features released by Warner Home Video.

That experience leads me to believe there’s an audience out there for as much Harley Quinn material as can be produced. There are caveats to that, though, that need to be taken into account.

The Right Harley

Yes, there are a lot of fans. But as I said, there’s a drive among fans to make Harley their own. Amanda Conner’s book from a few years ago did a great job of presenting a Harley that was instantly recognizable and popular because if combined elements of many of the character’s incarnations. Activating the demand that’s out there will depend largely on how well different sections of the audience feel that the Harley on screen is the “true” Harley, or the one they identify most with.

Truly Solo

So much of Harley’s character is defined by her relationship to others, particularly Joker. One of the great parts of Conner’s book is that it featured her truly on her own (or at least with her own new set of supporting characters). Most of the teamups in that book were with other female characters, especially Poison Ivy. There was even a spinoff book called Harley Quinn & Power Girl that was almost too much fun to be legal. And some of the weaker issues of that series were where Joker was shoehorned in. While the Harley/Joker movie seems to make sense on paper, it could undermine much of what has proven to work so well in the comics in recent years.

Don’t Overdo It…But Overdo It

When I watched Suicide Squad I kept waiting for Harley to really show up. Again, the character’s dependency in that movie on Joker for motivation and actions kept her from really cutting loose. The whole point of Harley is that she’s a wild card, never doing what’s expected because she’s 100% insane. My hope is that in future films she’s allowed to cut loose and really be herself, without the connections to Joker that come with more than a few icky overtones of violence against women being somehow “entertainment.”

Do we *need* four Harley Quinn movies? No. Do we *need* three more Spider-Man movies? No. Do we *need* four more Fantastic Beasts movies? No. We don’t need any of this. But if we’re going to get them, my hope is that the character can stand on her own two feet and be the empowering agent of chaos unbeholden to any man that her most successful incarnations show her to be.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.