To beef up lukewarm sales, restaurants are bringing in the movies like ''Batman & Robin''

Alvera, who works the counter at the drive-through Taco Bell on L.A.’s Santa Monica Boulevard, has a news flash that might interest Hollywood execs: Batman is hot.

Not, mind you, Batman & Robin, Warner Bros.’ big-budget summer spectacle, which has been sinking quickly at the box office since its June 20 opening. Rather, Alvera notes, the heat is for Taco Bell’s Batman collector toys. ”We sold out of them last week,” says the Bat-shirted server, offering a customer an Unmask Batman collectible soda container as consolation. ”And these are the last of the cups.”

As far as Taco Bell is concerned, B&R is a smash — a successful promotion waged during one of the busiest film-tie-in seasons in history. Though film-based campaigns are nothing new, they’ve become increasingly vital for the stagnant $102 billion fast-food industry. ”They’re extremely important as a way to bring in entire families and to attract people to make repeat visits,” says Mark Hamstra, a reporter for Nation’s Restaurant News. ”Anybody who has little kids knows how important it is to collect a whole set of figurines — even if the movie’s not all that popular.”

Thus, this summer’s film schedule, one of the most crowded slates ever, is as critical a period for the fast-food business as it is for the studios — a time when restaurant chains discover if they’re partnered with a Toy Story (fans flocked to Burger King in ’95 to grab Woody and Buzz Lightyear dolls) or a Hunchback of Notre Dame (Burger King found itself stuck with unwanted Quasimodo toys last summer).

So far, this summer’s tie-in report card has been good. Hercules, which has produced only fair grosses for Disney, is still helping McDonald’s do brisk business with its plastic Greco-Roman collector plates. Burger King enjoyed bigger crowds when it introduced its The Lost World: Jurassic Park watches in May. (Neither will reveal figures, saying only that movie partnerships are extremely successful promotions.) Taco Bell, meanwhile, says that besides the boost B&R has given to June business, its campaign with Twentieth Century Fox’s Star Wars rereleases helped increase sales 4 percent in the first quarter of the year.

From Hollywood’s standpoint, such partnerships mean extra ad dollars for a studio, a significant benefit at a time when marketing costs for features are skyrocketing. Taco Bell committed $20 million promoting Batman & Robin, while McDonald’s has agreed to spend between $35 million and $40 million each for Hercules and Disney’s other family-friendly summer release, George of the Jungle. (The films are part of an exclusive 10-year marketing deal struck last year by McDonald’s and Disney.) In fact, McDonald’s involvement enabled Disney to substantially inflate George‘s budget, to a reported $50 million. ”It just made the picture that much bigger, since we knew it would have greater exposure,” says Brett Dicker, Disney’s senior VP of promotions. ”It added so much more to the marketing power behind the film.”