First, it was "Birds of Prey" back in the initial stages. Then, it became "Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)." Then, it didn't have a great opening weekend at the box office. Now, it's "Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey." Movie theaters have been instructed to change titles on their sites where tickets are sold following the lackluster debut, raising questions about the marketing strategy for this R-rated DC Comics film with Margot Robbie in the leading role. Should the movie not have had Harley Quinn at the top of its title all along? How did it get here, to a place where the conversation is about its struggle rather than what could have been a built-in success?
The movie is not a failure and might see the next couple of weekends come to its rescue but, it's no secret, the opening weekend clocking in at $32 million, shy of the $50 million projections, was a disappointment.
The press tour did its job. The stars traveled the world, even showing up to an event on Hollywood and Highland to promote the film with a projection of its title sprawled across the location. They did their part and fielded questions they often can't answer about sequels and talked about how empowering the film is. There were really no hiccups, at least not any publicly obvious ones, between the stars, writer, director, producers, or anyone else who talked for hours on end about the Birds of Prey movie. In fact, their conversation probably only sparked interest, as they often described the movie as "bad-ass" and let out interesting bits of information, like how the hyena was brought to life on set. Canary actress Jurnee Smollet-Bell even showcased her knowledge of DC Comics, prompting viral clips on social media centered around speculation of which characters should be included in a sequel. It was all a great way to win fans over and build interest.
Since the talent did their part, this one seems to be on the marketing team — one which masterfully made audiences think Robbie's debut as Harley Quinn, Suicide Squad, was going to be everything they wanted in an anti-hero film, just four years ago.
Now, with no red band trailer out to promote the R-rated elements of the film, it seems the marketing team might not have been in touch with the identity of Birds of Prey. It starts with the title, one which, simply put, should have had "Harley Quinn" at its front all along. The supporting cast and characters may even outshine the lead at times, but "Harley Quinn" is, without question, the mainstream audience's keyword to build interest. Instead, her name was shoved nine words deep into an 11-word title that was never going to fit onto a ticket stub.
This movie was never not going to be R-Rated. The production called for the F-word to be used just as it appears to have been in the film. The few violent sequences were always present and the freedom allowed the characters to show off a bit more attitude and raise some stakes. So why didn't Birds of Prey ever market itself as the R-rated romp that it is?
One scenario is that Birds originally intended to go full Deadpool in its marketing, showcasing exactly how it would make use of its R rating. Moments like Robbie delivering her emphatic, "I'm Harley f-cking Quinn!" line from the film were censored for green band trailers, going with, "I'm Harley freaking Quinn!" instead. Perhaps the movie tested better with a younger audience and the studio and/or marketing started to backpedal diving into that R-rated appeal to try to lure in the younger audience. Then, perhaps when it was rated R because much of the film already called for foul language and some violence, it was too late to strip those elements for a PG-13 outing, resulting in some potential underage moviegoers being barred from heading to theaters. It's all very confusing from the outside.
The film has top stars, such as Robbie and Rosie Perez, with only the former being heavily marketed, but the latter portraying a character who joins the titular girl gang. There are actually people in movie theaters saying, "Wait, Rosie Perez is in this?"
Women have proven to be juggernauts at the box office in comic book films in the past, so an argument about it being female-centric can be thrown out the window, as it should be. Both Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel raked in impressive hauls and neither of the titles, nor this Birds movie, steered clear of acknowledging the scarcity of women in blockbuster films during their respective run-ups to release. The female-driven titles are unfortunately often met with toxic conversations and comments on social media but, in the previous two comic book movie instances, the better of the fans spoke dominantly with those box office returns. Perhaps this film could have benefited from committing one way or the other; going all-in on Harley Quinn in the marketing or going all-in on the Birds of Prey women, rather than flirting with both ideas and never truly jumping into either.
Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is a better movie than the box office is giving it credit for. The film has the advantage of getting its big keyword character name in its title ahead of Valentine's Day weekend, where it has to only compete against the opening weekend of Sonic, and is the same weekend where R-rated Deadpool thrived four years ago. While Birds is not going to be racking up the $130 million Deadpool did over the same weekend, Sonic should be appealing to a completely different audience and not eating any ticket sales, which should be happening for the more mature, zanier, comic book flick over a big date weekend.
It seems this blunder, although not a brutal loss for Warner Brothers but a solid disappointment, lays at the feet of the marketing team. A lack of clear identity in trailers and in the lead up to release certainly hindered the film's chances from being a standout. It's hard to imagine any hardcore Harley Quinn fans not knowing the character was in the movie when they walk up to the movie theater and see "Birds of Prey" listed on showtimes but, for the casual audiences, the title may have been one of several factors.
Positive word of mouth might give Birds some legs along the way, but the more interesting story at this point will be what happens next with Warner Bros.' and DC Comics films, as the studio has proven to be very reactive to box offices, test screenings, and fan reactions in the past. With James Gunn's very-likely R-rated The Suicide Squad on the horizon and PG-13 Wonder Woman 1984 coming later this year, will they make changes from production to marketing? Time will tell.
Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is now playing in theaters.
Did you see Birds of Prey in theaters? What did you think? Do you think the title has been a major player in the box office draws? Share your thoughts in the comment section or send them my way on Instagram and Twitter.