In 1998, a man named John Stacks formed a company, Johnny Resin, that sold model kits to a niche audience. His specialty was a line of sculpts bearing the likenesses of actors from 1966's Batman television series: Adam West, Burt Ward, and an assortment of villains, all in costume.
This was a dubious enterprise. Though Stacks had the permission of the actors, he did not have permission from Warner Bros. or DC Entertainment, which own the characters, or from Fox, which held distribution rights to the show. Predictably, DC unleashed its battalion of attorneys. The matter was settled when Stacks apologized and claimed it cost more to license Adam West's likeness than he earned selling it.
Stacks didn't mind, though. His struggle with DC launched a mission that would help clear the way for a more highly prized bit of Bat-ephemera: full, commercial-free, non-bootlegged DVD and Blu-ray collections of the entire 1960s Batman series—something held up for years by rights disputes between the show's many parents.
"Everyone who's a fan of the show wanted it on home video," says Stacks. "But we never thought we'd see it this century."
The wait is over. Next week, *Batman *hits retail in all its kitsch-laden glory just in time for the holidays. After decades of rumors, corporate wrangling, and the foresight of an actor who recorded his commentary early in case he dropped dead before the collection materialized, the series finally escapes legal purgatory. But don't give much credit to corporate lawyers. Instead, it's due to a tireless, clever campaign by a small band of fans that started when Stacks started digging into the show's archived paper trail.
"That's when one fat guy in Florida shook the whole thing up," he says.
*Batman'*s troubles started early, enmeshed in a thicket of contractual obligations before it ever got on the air. ABC bought television and film rights to the character from DC precursor National Periodical Publications for $7,000. (National, which saw its comics sales tanking, was happy to get it.) To produce the show, ABC relied on 20th Century Fox and Greenway Productions, a company headed by former CBS executive William Dozier. Fox and Greenway split ownership of the series, with Greenway owning the footage and Fox owning the exclusive right to distribute. (Greenway would get 50 percent of profits after expenses had been deducted.) When he died in 1991, Dozier's share of the Batman property was split among his daughter Deborah Dozier Potter, his son Robert Dozier, and Greenway's lawyers, Jacque Leslie and Barry Rubin.
For those of you keeping track, that's a lot of Bat-pieces in a lot of Bat-places.
"My father produced it, owned it along with Fox, the characters were owned by DC, and Warner eventually owned DC," Potter says of the legal pile-up. "He didn't think it would amount to anything. It wasn't even in his will."
The show ran from 1966 to 1968, becoming a cultural phenomenon that boosted National's sagging comic sales and resonated with the ironically detached "camp" movement of the era. "In the '60s, it was the Beatles, Batman, and Bond," says actor Mark Hamill, a devotee who would later provide the voice of the Joker in animated and videogame Batman properties. "There was nothing else like it on television. Adam is so underrated as an actor. He walked the line between sincerity and parody and set the tone."
Hamill used his post-Star Wars celebrity to convince Fox to make videotaped copies of all 120 episodes for him. It was the only "official" collection any fan would see for the next 35 or so years: home-video distribution didn't exist when the series was produced, and when outfits like Columbia House—the service that promised 10 CDs or VHS tapes for a penny and a commitment to get a lot of mail—wanted to solicit the show in the 1990s, it found Fox and Warner Bros. at odds. Neither wanted to navigate the legal morass or hand off distribution to any other party—especially not to each other. (According to one source, a Warner Bros./DC executive once vowed Fox would release the property "over my dead body.")
Then came Stacks' case over the model kits. He was collecting piles of cease and desist letters from DC; in an effort to assess their claim, he paid a University of Wyoming student $250 to collect and copy a vast collection papers William Dozier had donated to the school in the 1980s. "It was his whole library," Stacks says. "Pictures, contracts, all the originals. Dozier kept notes on everything. If the lights on set were turned off at two o'clock, he'd write it down. I went through 400 pages of paperwork."
He'd dug up Dozier's papers for his own case, but the documents turned out to be pivotal in the effort to bring Batman to home video. The files, some of which Stacks forwarded to Potter and her husband, revealed a curious provision in the Fox/Greenway deal that became effective 21 years after the show went off the air: a "Dutch agreement" that allowed for one party to make an offer to buy out the other's share. If the offer was declined, the rejecting entity could buy the other's share for the same price. In either case, the agreement required a sale that would give the copyright to the show (though not the DC characters) to a single entity.
This detail, among other profit-sharing language, was noticed by Reed Kaplan, a DVD content producer (The Real Ghostbusters, Underdog) who had been introduced to the Potters by Wally Wingert, a voice actor and friend of Adam West. Kaplan, Wingert says, had experience navigating difficult content deals. More importantly, he had worn a Batman T-shirt for school picture day in third grade.
"Reed did some real forensic work," Wingert says. "You're dealing with a series that wasn't supposed to have an afterlife beyond syndication."
Kaplan was struck by the Dutch agreement language and differences in valuations in royalties versus a buyout, but talks with Fox and Warner Bros. amounted to the same thing. "Everyone thought I was on to something," Kaplan says, "but they all said, 'We had our lawyers look at this for years, there's precedent now, and we're not putting any more energy into it.' So what I needed was to find someone to come up with the money to buy out the Doziers and then execute the buy/sell agreement with Fox."
Kaplan went to Lorne Michaels' Broadway Video, Time Life, and film producer Lawrence Bender, among others. "I spent many years and a great deal of money on lawyers to back up my reading of it," he says. "I can't tell you the number of meetings I had. It's easy to get people to listen when you mention Batman. But everyone would hear the details and go, 'This is never going to happen.'"
In 2006, Kaplan turned to Classic Media's Eric Ellenbogen, a content acquisition specialist whom Kaplan knew to be tenacious. "Eric was the first person to agree with me," Kaplan says. "And so did his lawyers."
Ellenbogen bought Deborah Potter's portion of Greenway's assets without knowing if her brother would be amenable to selling. Robert Dozier was older, in declining health, and preferred the regular checks from syndication over rocking the boat. Ellenbogen convinced him, and went through the same process with Jacque Leslie and the estate of Barry Rubin. Leslie was nearly 100 and died less than a month after completing the deal; Rubin's share was split among numerous family members.
It took three years for Ellenbogen to sort out the frayed contractual threads. But by January 2010, the Doziers officially were out of the Batman business. Classic Media was a proud part owner, having consolidated Greenway's interests in one easy-to-swallow package.
"It just became necessary to sell the series to Eric," Potter says. "There had to be one owner [of Greenway's portion] in order for it to be worth the trouble to get Fox and Warner to agree. It would be a lot less complicated."
That was the idea, anyway.
According to a source privy to negotiations, Fox was not impressed with Classic's legwork. It first argued Classic had no right to present the Dutch ultimatum, which would force Fox into action, because it didn't share 50 percent of the revenue after deductions and therefore weren't equal partners. At some point between 2010 and 2012, Fox and Classic went to private arbitration, which ruled on appeal that Classic had the right to act on the original contract.
Classic offered Fox a seven-figure sum for its stake in Batman. Per the contract, Fox had to sell or buy it for the same price. Kaplan's strategy had made it a no-lose proposition for Ellenbogen: either Fox sold its share, allowing Classic and Warner Bros. to proceed, or Fox would pay roughly three times what Classic had paid for the rights. In the end, Fox decided to buy, which consolidated the series under one banner. (Classic later sold its content library to DreamWorks, sans Batman, for $155 million.)
What happened between Fox and Warner Bros. over the next few years is unknown: both declined to comment on negotiations. But in 2012, the two were able to square away a licensing deal for collectibles based on the series. While fans took that as foreshadowing, the DVDs never materialized. Whoever distributed the series would get the lion's share of the revenue, and neither company wanted to acquiesce to the other.
"It meant a lot," Kaplan says, "to both companies to be the one to have Batman come out under their own name."
Ultimately, Fox had a decision to make: sit on the property and be satisfied with syndication revenue or try to recoup the money they spent securing ownership from Classic. They seemed no closer to a decision until the 2013 Comic-Con International in San Diego, which gave convention-goers a Warner Bros. tote bag with West's Batman and Ward's Robin. Rumors spread that an announcement was pending—if for no other reason than that West, who just turned 86, didn't have all that much time left to promote the set.
The two studios were still at loggerheads, but the ensuing excitement may have convinced the companies there was enough interest in the show to reach a deal. In January 2014, Conan O'Brien (whose talk show appears on Warner-owned TBS) tweeted a photo of himself straddling the Batmobile, announcing to his millions of Twitter followers that the show was coming to home video. Warner Bros. confirmed the announcement. Fox, which is now sole owner of the series, will receive a share of profits, while Warner Home Video will be the distributor of record. In 2014, the studio screened the cleaned-up footage for a packed house at Comic-Con.
"They had a side-by-side comparison," Wingert says. "You could see every grain of sand in the hourglass to ensure Robin's impending doom. It was fantastic."
Kaplan, who says he spent thousands of his own dollars on legal costs and had hoped to produce the bonus content, was not asked to participate in the release; neither was Wingert, who once floated the idea of narrating some of the extra features. Stacks also received no compensation for his time assembling the Dozier papers that led to a cascade of activity. None of this was contractually promised, of course, but all the men seem slightly disappointed that their efforts weren't rewarded in some way.
"We had this funny idea Adam could stand in front of the screen like a weatherman, pointing out certain things in scenes," Kaplan says. "Warner just decided to go a different way." (In 2009, West recorded commentary and sold it via his website, marking the first time DVD extras were released with no actual show included.)
With no Batman feature on tap until 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the Caped Crusader's 75th anniversary this year seems the perfect time to push another iteration of the character. West's likeness and droll persona now adorn everything from a DC comic book to a statue of his Batman on a surfboard, all of it under a blanket-marketing label—Batman '66—that sounds like a throwback sports line. What was once a perceived low point for the franchise is now poised to be a retail hit.
"I used to defend the show," says Hamill, who has a Blu-ray set on pre-order at Amazon. "People reviled it, like it branded comics in a bad light. But it's come full circle."
"It's cyclical, just like anything," Wingert says. "At San Diego, 6,000 people were on their feet when Adam came out. It was 1966 all over again."