If you stick around for the end credits of The LEGO Batman Movie, you might notice the names of two people credited as executive producers on the picture. They are Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker. Nothing odd there, apart from the small matter of them having absolutely nothing to do with the film. To the best of our knowledge, they had no conversation with director Chris McKay and his team at any time before, during or after the production. But they did pick up a cheque and a credit for their troubles.
Having people listed as executive producers who are ‘hands off’ is nothing particularly fresh, and we looked at just what an executive producer does in this article here.
But what’s interesting about Uslan and Melniker is that they’re credited on every Batman movie since 1989. That includes the assorted animated movies that have gone straight to disc – Batman: Year One, Batman: Under The Red Hood, for instance – as well as the higher profile features. Thus, Uslan and Melniker were executive producers on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, as well as Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice last year.
In all, the pair are listed on just shy of 40 Batman productions. All the more remarkable, because they were only hands on in any degree on just one of them. As you might expect, there’s a bit of a story behind this, one that goes all the way back to Uslan’s younger years, some four decades back.
For Michael Uslan was a long-term Batman fan, so much so that his autobiography – that’s well worth a read – is entitled The Boy Who Loved Batman. It was published in 2011, and he’s also credited as being the first to teach an accredited course about comic book folklore at an American university.
Along with Benjamin Melniker, Uslan acquired the rights to bring Batman to the movies back in the late 1970s. As he put it in an interview with Comics Alliance, back then: “nobody else on the planet wanted them”. In his 20s, therefore, the self-confessed comic book geek found himself striking a deal with DC Comics. His chutzpah, foresight and passion would eventually be rewarded.
Uslan originally approached Richard Maibaum and Guy Hamilton – the duo behind several Bond films – to help realise Batman, and Tom Mankiewicz was on screenplay duties at one stage. Furthermore directors became interested and drifted due to commitments elsewhere, with Ivan Reitman and Joe Dante both mooted.
But the problem for Uslan and Melniker is that their influence had diluted. As the Los Angeles Times noted, the pair weren’t told that the 1989 Batman movie – directed by Tim Burton, and starring Michael Keaton – was going into production until the year before. And the reason for that stemmed back to 1979.
Back then, having just got hold of the rights, the young Uslan needed help getting a film together. Thus, he entered into an agreement with a company called Casablanca Productions in November 1979, that gave Uslan and Melniker $400,000. The deal, in turn, would cost the pair their input.
Casablanca Productions was owned by Peter Guber, who in 1980 would migrate it into Polygram Pictures, effectively merging one business into the other. Guber then would broker a separate deal with Warner Bros for Batman, which would clear the path to Tim Burton’s movie. That deal was signed in 1981, and come September of 1988, filming was set to begin on Batman in London.
Uslan and Melniker weren’t alien to the development work, but Warner Bros was reportedly keen for them to take a back seat. At the studio’s behest, the pair reluctantly moved from being producers to executive producers, and thus signed a written amendment to their initial deal with Casablanca Productions in 1988. That deal would entitle them to $300,000 in ‘fixed compensation’ for Batman, and a $100,000 deferment when an unnamed revenue target was hit. More details on it can be found in court papers, here.
Furthermore, they would be entitled to 13% of the net profits from the movie (‘net’ proving to be the crucial word here).
On top of the money paid to them for Batman, Warner Bros also wrote a cheque to Uslan and Melniker for $700,000, that would cover two further motion pictures, in this case proving to be Batman Returns and Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm. As a Superior Court of California ruling in 1994 would reveal, Warner Bros was also obliged to cover ‘similar financial obligations’ on each additional Batman picture.
Just consider that a second, then. On those near-40 Batman movies since 1989, Benjamin Mulniker and Michael Uslan were seemingly paid a six figure sum it seems by Warner Bros, without having to do a thing. That’s the benefit of having foresight in 1979, at a time when nobody else was interested in making a Batman film. To be clear: we’re not begrudging them here. Uslan took a risk and followed his heart. Batman has been a part of his professional life ever since.
Along with the money has also come a credit, which is where we come to the detail behind the question at the top of the article. Accepting that even on 1989’s Batman the pair’s creative input was ultimately limited (their key initial suggestions being mainly to go for a Batman film more serious in tone, and to show the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents – again, far bolder suggestions when they were made than they would be today), they’re still listed as executive producers. As I understand it, the pair have had no creative input of note into any of the Batman films outside of that 1989 production.
Their credit, though, was cemented when they took Warner Bros to court in the aftermath of Batman’s sensational box office results. The pair sued the studio for $8m they believed they were owed as part of their net profit deal. Warner Bros, in turn, argued that the 1989 Batman film hadn’t made any net profits, in spite of it being one of the top ten grossing films of all time at the American box office as the case was being heard. In fact, according to this AP report from 1992, Warner Bros was arguing that it had lost $20m on the movie.
The court, though, found in the studio’s favour, throwing out Uslan and Melniker’s case, with Judge David Yaffe not finding enough evidence to take it to a jury trial.
But that didn’t affect the core agreement Melniker and Uslan had with the studio. And whilst the pair haven’t reportedly seen their net profits realised (even by the late 90s, those net profits were mounting to zero), they do still retain executive producer credit, and they do bank a tidy sum every time Warner Bros puts a new film involving Batman into production. With seven Batman releases in total in 2016 – and that doesn’t include Suicide Squad, even – that’s not, in hindsight, too bad a return. It’s why their names are on the credits of The LEGO Batman Movie, and it’s also why you’ll still be seeing their names on many Batman films to come, whether they know they even know the films exist or not…