Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn) has a marketing problem and it’s a simple one. It’s got a stupid title that means nothing and that very few people understand. Logic dictates that titles of IP that don’t acknowledge the IP’s origin aren’t going to convey what the thing is about with any level of success. Furthermore, logically speaking, if an audience doesn’t understand what a movie is, they may be less likely to see it.
Well, what about empirical evidence? How about an abysmal domestic box office opening weekend of $33,010,017? That’s less than fantabulous. While some films might be thrilled with a $33M dollar box office, that take doesn’t cut it for superhero films, or DC films in general, or specifically as the defacto follow-up to Harley Quinn’s debut role in Suicide Squad ($133,682,248 domestic opening—meaning Quinn scored only 25% of the original). For comparison, the other most recent superhero bomb, Dark Phoenix, came in at $32,828,348. Meaning that Birds of Prey barely outperformed arguably the most epic superhero flop of all time while coming off a highly successful franchise bow in Suicide Squad.
But did Birds of Prey actually outperform Dark Phoenix at all? Let’s examine the numbers a bit more closely. DP got the massive Fox/Disney bump and was released on 3,721 screens in its opening frame. However, Warner Bros. went even more in on BoP with a resounding 4,236 screens. That means that Dark Phoenix actually outperformed Birds of Prey on a per screen average at $8,822.45 to $7,792.73. If you’re feeling generous (which I’m not), you can allow that Birds of Prey had a budget of less than half of Dark Phoenix ($97.1 to $200M) so it still may manage to make a profit whereas DP never will.
That’s irrelevant. The issue at hand is the marketing problem which anyone could have seen coming. In fact, evidence seems to suggest that even Warner Bros. and DC did realize it in the weeks before its release. In the month leading up to Birds of Prey’s February 7 release date, TV spots started featuring voiceover from trailer voice guys saying things like “Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey,” or ‘Birds of Prey, but not really … it’s Harley Quinn!,’ or ‘Birds of Prey—psych! Harley Quinn!’
They doubled down on this shift in marketing, seemingly acknowledging the root problem being the misleading title (which Jesse Lab crushed in his Birds of Prey review), but why? If you know the issue, why not fix it? Why slap duct tape on a leaky pipe instead of replacing the pipe? I know, I know; who can afford a fucking plumber these days what with the cost of gas, groceries, and grog, amiright? Big fucking movie studios, that’s who! With entire marketing departments and reserve budgets for just such fuckups on superhero movies, they can afford to make changes that will ultimately pay dividends.
Heavy investment. Birds of Prey has been Birds of Prey in theory since May 2016 and in practices since star Margot Robbie confirmed it in July 2018. That means every bit of marketing material on the planet referred to it as such and it’s a far easier fix to slap some tape on new TV spots than replace everything from scratch. The only way anyone was going to take this bad titling seriously was if they got slapped in the face, hard. Welcome to Sunday, February 9, 2020 when early box office reporting leaked just how hard Warner Bros, DC, and media-daddy AT&T got slapped.
By Monday, yesterday, the film had officially been renamed Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. By Tuesday, Warner Bros. clarified that the official title was still the original garbage, but for movie ticketing sites, they’d changed it to make it clearer to customers what they were actually seeing. They should have changed it officially, officially. AMC and Regal may be playing ball, but Fandango hasn’t changed shit. Bully on them, I say.
Any shift in marketing, be it calling Harley Quinn, or possibly even DC’s Birds of Prey is understandable. Birds of Prey currently holds the lowest box office open for the modern DCEU, even losing out to Shazam, a character literally no one had ever heard of unless you were a diehard DC fan. Here are all of the DCEU’s recent opening weekends for reference:
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice $166M
- Suicide Squad $133.68M
- Man of Steel $116.62M
- Wonder Woman $103.25M
- Justice League $93.84M
- Aquaman $67.87M
- Shazam! $53.5M
- Birds of Prey $33.01M
It’s too bad someone didn’t pay attention to the recent lackluster performance of Doctor Sleep. While Dark Phoenix probably should have included X-Men in its title, as well as its marketing materials, its true issue was that it was unoriginal garbage that nearly everyone who saw it hated. It currently holds a 23% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes. Conversely, Doctor Sleep sits comfortably at 77%. It’s named after the Stephen King novel it’s based on — so it’s not like they were just combining words randomly selected from the scribbles of a men’s room stall like they did with Birds of Prey. They were just being true to the source material. Unfortunately, when you’re making a sequel to one of the most revered horror films of all time in The Shining, it probably pays to mention the original in the sequel’s title, especially after 39 years have passed.
This is not to equate Doctor Sleep with Birds of Prey. Heavens no! That is far too great an injustice to Doctor Sleep and everyone who worked on it. That film is a horror film which are not the box office behemoths that superhero films are now designed to be, nor did Doctor Sleep have the advantage of recency bias servicing to boost its performance. In fact, owing to the passage of time not only in reality, but in the King universe, the sequel featured an entirely new cast and setting and is unable to call back to the success of the original, whereas Birds of Prey is poised to do so — or should have been if anyone understood it to be a continuation of Suicide Squad.
Assigning blame is hard though. Just like titling anything is. Originally, I was going to call this article “DC Asshats Fuck the Proverbial Pie Again,” but I have highly paid editors (Ed. note – we’re highly paid?) and marketers helping keep my baser and lesser instincts in check.