Executive producer of the latest Batman movies and IU alumnus Michael Uslan will screen 1989’s “Batman” and 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises” on campus over the next week.
“Batman,” Uslan’s first movie in the franchise as a producer, will be shown at 7 p.m. Jan. 26 at the IU Cinema for a 30th anniversary screening. Uslan will be giving a talk after and tickets are $4. “The Dark Knight Rises” will be shown at 7 p.m. Jan. 28 in Franklin Hall Commons and Uslan will participate in a Q&A session after. The event is free and open to the public.
Uslan, who has been a producer on every Batman movie since 1989, said he originally got involved in the Batman films because he wanted the character to be taken seriously.
Before Michael Keaton’s 1989 portrayal, the caped crusader had only been seen as what Uslan described as campy and goofy. The popular TV show and movie from 1966, where Adam West played Batman in colorful tights and had comedic one-liners, were not cutting it for him.
“As a Batman fan those shows killed me,” Uslan said. “The whole world was laughing at my Batman.”
Uslan grew up in Ocean Township, New Jersey and has been reading comic books since he was 4. His older brother, Paul, was a star athlete who excelled in every sport. Michael wasn’t.
“He was the most feared pitcher in little league,” he said. “I kind of got tired of striking out. I needed to get out of my brother’s shadow.”
Comic books, specifically ones about superheroes, became Uslan’s refuge. He said he enjoyed spending time with powerful, noble characters and was enthralled by the stories. His mother likes to tell people he learned to read from comic books, Uslan said.
After high school, Paul enrolled at IU. Michael, who was four years younger, often visited his brother in Bloomington and began to feel comfortable in the city.
“I fell in love with the campus the first time I saw it,” Uslan said.
While weighing his options for college, Uslan considered IU. He won a Scholastic Magazine national creative writing contest in high school, and a panel of judges at the awards ceremony asked him what his plans were for college.
“I listed off the schools I’d been accepted to and they instantly told me I should choose IU,” Uslan said.
After the ceremony, Uslan was still unsure about whether or not to follow Paul to Bloomington. Then, he found a loophole in IU’s curriculum that ensured his coming to the university, he said.
“I found a way for me to not have to take math,” Uslan said. “Speaking in comic book terms, math was my kryptonite.”
Uslan enrolled as a history major in 1969, but he said his heart was set on the film industry. During his senior year, Uslan would go to the library weekly to read Variety magazine, which he calls the Bible of the entertainment industry.
Equipped with a yellow notepad and paper, Uslan would read every story in the magazine looking for names of film executives and write each one down. By the end of the year, he said he had a list of 372 names.
Determined to break into the industry, Uslan then wrote 372 cover letters on a typewriter and sent them to all the executives he’d found, asking for a job.
“I was 2 for 372,” Uslan said. “I only got two responses.”
Both job offers he received were entry-level positions, one working in the mail room of a New York talent agency and the other making photocopies and grabbing coffee as a production assistant in Los Angeles. Both positions paid $95 a week.
Uslan said he couldn’t figure out how he and his girlfriend, now his wife, would be able to survive in a big city on that salary. So he applied for law school.
“Always have a plan B, C and D,” Uslan said. “Never bank on just one thing working out for you.”
He was accepted into Maurer School of Law at IU, where he enrolled in as many courses related to the entertainment industry as possible. He said his plan was to graduate, work a few years on the financial and legal sides of film and hopefully sneak his way into a creative position.
Uslan finished law school in 1976 and immediately began applying for jobs. In October 1976, he accepted a job offer from film company United Artists in New York City. While working there, Uslan helped fund films such as “Raging Bull,” “Apocalypse Now” and early movies in the “Rocky” franchise.
Uslan used his time at United Artists to network with executives and gain industry experience, but he said he knew he didn’t want to stay there for more than four years.
“I was willing to deliver pizza for Domino’s, but I did not want to continue being a lawyer,” he said. “I acted like it was grad school — gain experience but get out in four years.”
Uslan had a big idea for how to turn Hollywood upside down: make a serious Batman movie. In 1979, he bought the film rights to the character from DC Comics, then quit his job at United Artists to focus on the project full time.
However, no studio wanted to produce such a film.
“All I ever heard from studios was, ‘You can’t make serious comic book movies, Michael,’” Uslan said. “Everyone told me my idea sucked. They thought Superman was the only superhero that had box office power and could be taken seriously.”
It took Uslan 10 years of pitching, reworking and repitching his idea for a studio to accept. The movie, which starred Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, became a smash hit at the box office and grossed over $411 million.
“I knew it was going to be big, I never doubted that,” Uslan said. “But I couldn't predict the scope of its impact culturally.”
Since the release of “Batman” in 1989, Hollywood executives and film audiences have drastically changed their view on superhero movies. Four Marvel superhero movies, “Black Panther” and the three Avengers movies, are now in the top ten highest-grossing films of all time.
“The movie marked a cultural change for Hollywood and comic books,” Uslan said. “It opened the door to people who would never pick up a comic book.”
Uslan said he has worked with three people in his career who he considers films geniuses, two of which worked on this first Batman movie with him.
“I credit director Tim Burton and production designer Anton Furst for the movie’s success,” he said. “They came in with a vision and carried it out masterfully.”
The third genius Uslan said he has worked with is Christopher Nolan, director of "The Dark Knight" trilogy. While Burton and Furst were able to get audiences to take comic book movies seriously with their work, Uslan said Nolan pushed the genre to the next level.
“Chris elevated the whole concept of superhero movies,” he said. “When you walk out of these movies, you no longer have to say that was a great comic book movie, but a great film.”