Warner Bros. production company hopes Man of Steel will win big audiences

By Anthony Duignan-Cabrera and Henry Cabot Beck
Updated September 20, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a major motion picture! It’s an animated series! It’s a hit TV show! It’s a comic-book tie-in! It’s…Superman?

Yes, Superman. That good old truth, justice, and the American way of entertainment stalwart, who has had countless movie and TV incarnations since he first hit the big screen in the 1940s, is poised to become the next great pan-media franchise. Producer Jon Peters is developing a big-budget film based on 1992’s The Death of Superman comic book, scheduled to hit theaters in 1998. An ambitious new animated series featuring the voices of Tim Daly as the Man of Steel and Dana Delany as Lois Lane launched Sept. 6 with a splashy 90-minute prime-time debut; the show will move to its permanent Saturday-morning spot this fall with a confident 65-episode network commitment. And in a glossy, high-profile crossover event, Miss Lane and Mr. Kent will simultaneously tie the knot in an October episode of ABC’s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and in an issue of the DC comic book. Talk about a Super market.

Look closely at this resurgence, though, and you’ll notice an intriguing business theme: The studio producing the feature film is Warner Bros. (and yes, the studio and this magazine are both owned by Time Warner). The animated show is a series on The WB network. And the wedding will take place on a Warner-produced TV series and in a Warner-owned comic book. Great Scott! Could that big S on his chest actually stand for synergy?

”Superman is one of Warner’s crown jewels and it’s been lying dormant,” says Tracy Barone, president of Peters Entertainment, the production company behind the Superman feature. ”It’s a sleeping giant.” And Warner’s strategy seems clear: Awaken the giant within. ”We’re all working together,” says a spokesperson for the animated series. ”It’s an example of Warner utilizing the ‘brand extension’ philosophy, like they did with Batman. We’ll probably do it again, perhaps with Marvin the Martian.”

Lex Luthor himself couldn’t have devised a more carefully coordinated game plan for world domination. ”This is an ongoing strategy,” says Robert Friedman, president of worldwide advertising and publicity for Warner. ”We have these blue-chip properties that all Warner divisions are constantly working with, enhancing their value.”

The explicit model for this plan of steel is the Batman franchise, otherwise known as the Warner cash cow. Since the premiere of the first Dark Knight film in 1989, the three features have grossed $600 million worldwide, energized DC’s flagship comic-book line, spawned a hit animated series (created, not coincidentally, by some of the same Warner team making the Superman cartoon), and produced a never-ending stream of merchandising that has brought in more than $4 billion in revenue. And the Bat goes on: A star-studded fourth feature, Batman and Robin, is expected to be Warner’s tent-pole film for the summer of ’97.

But cows, especially cash ones, eventually dry up. ”As time goes on, the Batman franchise will lose steam,” says screenwriter Kevin Smith (Clerks), who is writing the screenplay for the upcoming Superman feature. ”So it’s clear [Warner] is attempting to create an event film. It’s smart.”