'Joker,' Gun Violence and Warner Bros.: Inside the Tricky Marketing of a Modern Supervillain

Photographed by Benjamin Rasmussen
Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica was killed at a 2012 screening of 'The Dark Knight Rises' in Aurora, Colorado, sent a concerned letter to Warner Bros. on behalf of victims’ families.

As prestigious as it is controversial and potentially lucrative, Todd Phillips’ hard-R drama presents the studio with a unique challenge: how to lure audiences to a disturbing and acclaimed movie in a country where mass shootings are commonplace.

Director Todd Phillips greeted the Joker premiere audience Sept. 28 at the TCL Chinese Theatre with a wry acknowledgement of his film's noisy entry into the marketplace. "Enjoy the movie," Phillips said. "Tell a friend. I feel like we have not gotten enough press and the word hasn't gotten out."

Warner Bros. has been getting the word out for more than a year — and been aided in recent weeks by an uncomfortable confluence between the R-rated Joker and real-life violence. In the movie, Joaquin Phoenix plays bullied street clown Arthur Fleck, whose Gotham City reeks from a garbage strike and teems with destructive young men, a group Arthur is about to galvanize on his path to becoming Batman's nemesis. Though set in 1981, Joker's anarchical mood feels ripped from the headlines of America circa 2019.

Normally, capturing the zeitgeist is a win for a film, but Joker's cultural bull's-eye has created a dilemma for Warners and its worldwide marketing president, Blair Rich: How do you sell a movie about a mentally ill loner with a gun in a country where mass shootings are increasingly commonplace?

Further complicating the issue, Joker shares DNA with DC Comics, the studio's most valuable franchise that fueled Wonder Woman and Aquaman — PG-13, four-quadrant films that generate product tie-ins and dictate Halloween costume choices.

Phillips originally pitched the film to then-Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara to launch a new label, "DC Black," an idea the studio nixed. Now it includes a title card indicating Joker is "based on DC characters," and Phillips has said he used the valuable comic book IP in order to convince executives to make a gritty, 1970s-inspired character study.

Within Warners, there was heated discussion about the wisdom of the project, with Walter Hamada, president of DC Entertainment-based film production, initially opposed to the project before ultimately becoming a supporter, according to a source with knowledge of the conversations. Tsujihara exited the studio in March, leaving Warner Bros. Pictures chairman Toby Emmerich and new CEO Ann Sarnoff, who had not been present for its greenlighting, to oversee the rollout. (Warners declined to comment for this report.)

Warners' $60 million-plus bet on Phillips' pitch, a fraction of the typical cost of a superhero movie, is shared by backers Bron Creative and Village Roadshow. It looks poised to pay off. Early tracking suggests Joker could set an October box office record, collecting more than $80 million domestically in its opening weekend, with interest particularly high among men. But the financial payoff will be balanced with the PR headache that Warners and its cautious new parent, AT&T, now faces.

On Sept. 24, family members of those killed in 2012 when a gunman opened fire during a showing of Warners' The Dark Knight Rises at a theater in Aurora, Colorado, sent a letter to the studio asking that it lobby for gun reform and donate to groups that aid victims of gun violence. Even the marketing materials for Joker have been triggering for some. "I just need to see a Joker promo and I see a picture of the killer," says Sandy Phillips, whose 24-year-old daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was among those slain.

Warners responded to the victims' letter with a statement extending its sympathy, noting that AT&T had recently called on policy makers to address the gun epidemic and saying, "Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind."

Nevertheless, security at the L.A. premiere was heightened, and the U.S. Army and L.A. Police Department have said they will be on alert when Joker opens Oct. 3. "The question is, are people going to feel safe going to the movies?" asks a rival studio executive.

As the controversy grew, Warners did not reduce its advertising budget nor tweak its campaign, but it did limit reporters at its red carpet premiere, shielding Phillips, Phoenix and executives from questions about the film's violence.

This isn't the only time a studio has contended with recent events affecting the reception for a film — in August, Universal canceled its release of The Hunt when President Trump called out the movie after two mass shootings. In 1999, Fox released Fight Club five months after the Columbine massacre, a decision that some critics called irresponsible.

"We live in a toxic environment, even worse than 20 years ago," says Bill Mechanic, who was running Fox at the time. "There are social and moral responsibilities to be non-exploitative, and we went out of our way to do that, to not glamorize the violence."

By selecting a fall release date outside the family moviegoing corridors of summer and holidays, Warners deliberately signaled to audiences that Joker is not one of its standard comic book movies. The studio also chose not to link any consumer products to the film, forgoing a revenue stream. Instead, Warners has been marketing Joker as a sophisticated, awards-worthy drama, beginning with a Venice Film Festival premiere in August, when it won the event's top prize. In September, it screened at the Toronto Film Festival, laying the groundwork for an Oscar run.

In a departure from the action shots and superhero logos that typify materials from the comic book genre, the studio started its marketing with a plaintive image of Phoenix in character posted on Phillips' Instagram account. An early trailer featured Phoenix's crying face after his character is knocked down by bullies as Jimmy Durante's melancholy version of the song "Smile" plays. Posters and billboards also have highlighted the actor in moody, close-up images. "They're selling prestige," says USC cinema professor Jason Squire, "not a conventional DC Comics approach."

Theaters are approaching Joker screenings with extra care. The film will not play at the Aurora Cinemark theater where the 2012 shooting took place. Alamo Drafthouse says it is engaging additional security for Joker, while Landmark Theatres, the country's largest independent chain, is prohibiting all costumes in addition to its usual ban on masks and toy weapons. "I want customers to be comfortable in their surroundings," says Landmark president-CEO Ted Mundorff.

Theaters also are signaling that Joker is distinct from a PG-13 comic book movie, lest parents arrive with young Batman fans in tow. AMC is promoting Joker under its new AMC Artisan Films brand, launched in June to boost art house fare via social media and in-theater marketing.

But the studio and theater owners still expect a large and broad audience for the film, and Warners has been courting those moviegoers using some pages from its usual tentpole playbook, beginning its TV advertising campaign in early September with spots during football games and reality shows and placing billboards in Times Square and on the Sunset Strip.

Whether Warners' strategies are the right ones will be clear only in hindsight. Looking back, Mechanic recalls wrestling with similar concerns about Fight Club. "They probably affected the box office," he says of the critics, "but when the hysteria died down, in the judgment of history, it was just a very well-made movie."

Pamela McClintock and Kim Masters contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.