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Sue Kroll had been in her job as Warner Bros. president of worldwide marketing for less than a week when her office phone rang. A friend implored her to look at the news online immediately.
“At first I thought it was a rumor,” recalls Kroll of that tragic afternoon in January. “I didn’t believe it was true.”
Heath Ledger, co-star of the studio’s highly anticipated summer tentpole “The Dark Knight” and the centerpiece of Warners’ meticulously planned marketing campaign, had been found dead in his New York apartment.
On the Burbank lot that day, many more phones were about to start buzzing.
“It was just this incredibly quick sequence of calls,” Kroll remembers. She talked to producers Chuck Roven and Emma Thomas, production president Jeff Robinov and president/COO Alan Horn.
Horn’s first priority, he says, was to reach out to Ledger’s mother and father in Australia and offer his condolences. All the movie’s marketing materials would be run past the family, he promised them.
“We were already out with the ‘Why so serious?’ campaign,” he notes. “We said (to Ledger’s family), ‘Look, is this an issue? Would you like us to pull this?’ And here’s what they said: ‘Heath loved the movie, was very proud of it. This was just an accident.’ They were fine with it — more than fine, they were completely supportive.”
Nearly six months later, Ledger’s performance as the Joker helped power “The Dark Knight” to a best-ever $18.5 million opening-night take. It was the first in a cavalcade of domestic boxoffice records shattered by a film that has survived a host of challenges to become the highest-grossing Warners release of all time ($489.4 million and counting).
“No one could have anticipated this kind of success,” Horn reflects. “It surprised us. And, once in a while, it is kind of fun to be surprised on the upside.”
The upside — and the start of “Dark Knight’s” adventure — commenced in June 2005, when director Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” grossed $72.9 million in its first five days.
It went on to take in $372 million worldwide — healthy, but nowhere near as strong as some had hoped.
Contrary to reports that the movie had lost money for the studio and co-financier Legendary Pictures, it did well enough for them to immediately set the wheels in motion for a sequel.
“If you look at the performance of (‘Begins’) in theaters, on DVD, and just how much the fan base really loved the movie, there was never any question for us,” says Legendary CEO Thomas Tull. “We just loved what Chris did from day one and were very excited about going back on the journey with him.”
Nolan could have leaped to another large-scale movie, but instead he signed on to direct again after developing the story with David S. Goyer. Subsequently, he recruited his brother, Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan, to co-write the script, and his wife, Emma Thomas, returned to produce along with Roven.
Luckily for Warners, the key cast — including Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Gary Oldman — had signed on to reprise their roles, although Katie Holmes declined to return and was replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Aaron Eckhart was added as Harvey Dent/Two-Face.
But it was a casting that initially drew criticism in certain fanboy quarters that was the most intriguing: that of Ledger as the Joker. After his Oscar-nominated turn as a repressed gay cowboy in 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” he seemed an odd choice to some.
“Ledger has always struck me as a bit of a stiff,” wrote Josh Tyler on the Cinema Blend Web site in July 2006, when rumors of the casting first surfaced. “Ledger seems spectacularly unsuited to the weirdness of the Joker.”
Once production began in April 2007, the filmmakers faced another major challenge. As with “Begins,” Nolan eschewed heavy CGI in favor of real stunts.
A sequence in which Batman jumps from a Hong Kong skyscraper and hitches a ride on a passing C-130 cargo plane was shot 88 stories above the city. After weeks of preproduction, a stuntman hung off a helicopter while a second copter with a camera captured it all.
In September 2007, a member of the crew from New Zealand, Conway Wickliffe, was killed in England during a test run for a stunt when the four-wheel-drive vehicle in which he was riding hit a tree.
Nolan and crew also took risks with their chosen format: The $185 million production budget included funds to shoot some of the big action sequences with Imax cameras, much heavier than the usual 35mm cameras. The decision proved lucrative, as the movie has become Imax’s biggest hit, raking in $50 million so far with a remarkable $400,000 per-screen average in U.S. theaters.
The studio also gambled a bit with its licensing and merchandising plans. “Batman Begins” had played down its tie-ins, but for “Knight,” Warner Bros. Consumer Products and DC Comics ramped up their efforts more than a year in advance of the picture’s release, selling the master license to toymaker Mattel, with additional toys from Lego and Halsall and everything from Batman-branded underwear to a deal for Kmart to serve as the “Official Batman Headquarters.”
Ledger’s Joker played a key role in that campaign, which kicked off in summer 2007 with a well-received teaser trailer featuring the Batman symbol cracking open and a card with a joker on it, as Ledger laughs maniacally.
It was Nolan who came up with the idea of using the film’s nearly six-minute opening sequence, a bank robbery, as a second teaser attached to the Imax release of “I Am Legend” in December.
“He wanted to make the movie into even more of an event,” Roven explains.
And then Ledger died, casting the whole campaign in doubt. Word had already spread that Ledger’s role would be a pivotal element of the marketing push. What would the studio do now?
Kroll says Ledger’s death came during a natural break in the campaign.
“We didn’t have to change anything,” she says. “It became very clear when the family and others started to see some of Heath’s bravado performance, and what a centerpiece it was to the movie, that there was no thought of marketing the film without him, as some suggested in the press around that time.”
By June, buzz on the film was strong, ticket presales were setting records, and marketing analysts were debating whether Ledger’s death might have actually served to stoke interest, rather than detract from the film. The movie looked set to hit the stratosphere. And then another obstacle arose.
Just before the film’s London premiere, Bale was arrested in a case involving an alleged assault on his mother and sister. How Warners chose to handle it was instructive.
“We just ignored it because it was his personal business,” Horn says. “If he had asked us to involve ourselves, we would have been willing to discuss that, but he didn’t mention it, and we didn’t mention it.”
Bale attended the premiere in London and another the next day in Spain, keeping up his entire PR schedule.
Authorities chose not to press charges. Meanwhile, the movie was on its path to dominate the summer boxoffice.
Now it is moving on to a new challenge, as Ledger is being pushed by the studio for year-end awards. He is almost certain to win a Golden Globe nomination — and might well be up for an Oscar.
A DVD release of the film is said to be planned for the holidays (the studio won’t confirm a date). And Warners and Legendary are both interested in doing a third in the series, but all involved say it will be up to Nolan to come to them with a story and a plan.
“There are a lot of us who emotionally would love to do it,” Roven says. “But it’s really Chris’ call. Chris is the kind of filmmaker who just doesn’t think about the next movie before he has completely finished the movie he is working on.”
For now, Nolan is taking a well-earned vacation.
Says Roven, “When he comes back, we will see how he feels.”
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