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February, 2014 Issue

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Michael Uslan's Batman

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In 1979, at less than 30 years old, Michael Uslan, avid Batman fanatic and self-proclaimed comic book geek walked in to the office of the president of DC comics and asked to purchase the film rights to the Batman franchise.

"He was very nice about it, but I could tell I was close to being laughed out of his office," Michael says.

30 years later, he is responsible for every incarnation of Batman you've ever seen on film, including the recent trilogy that has earned close to 3 BILLION dollars so far. He takes time out of his hectic schedule to speak with Campus Activities Magazine about his incredible story and the college presentation he gives that offers real life proof that anyone can realize their dreams. If a blue-collar comic book fan can own the rights to his favorite super hero, imagine what you can do.

"You are talking to one of the true, original comic book geeks," he says. "My mother said I learned to read from comics before I was four years old. By the time I graduated high school, I had a collection of over 30,000 comic books dating back to 1936." Not mentioned by Michael but extremely noteworthy is the fact that in 2005, he donated this entire collection to Indiana University's Lilly Library.

Michael attended the very first comic book convention ever held. "I was a total and complete fanboy geek and by the time I was eight years old I was completely enraptured by Batman. Much more than Superman or Spider Man or The Incredible Hulk, Batman captured my imagination because not only did he have the greatest super villains in the comic universe, but I could identify with him because he was the only super hero who was human...who had no super powers."

Even to this day, Michael still feels the same way about The Dark Knight. "I would contend that his greatest super power is his humanity. I believed that if I was a kid and I studied really hard and worked out really hard (and if my dad bought me a cool car) I could be this guy (laughs). So that was the path that I set out on."

For those not familiar, the recent series of films in The Dark Knight trilogy hearken back to the original days of Batman, when the character was largely defined by the darkness and tragedy Michael was so enraptured by. Strangely enough, it was the exact opposite of this interpretation of the character that brought him the drive to do something about it. "When I was in eighth grade, the Adam West 'Batman' television series came out. I was so excited, I couldn't wait. It was January of 1966 and when it came on I was simultaneously thrilled and horrified by what I was seeing. I was thrilled that Batman was on TV and the car was cool, but I was horrified that the whole world was laughing at him; Batman was being presented as a joke. As a true Batman comic book fan, that just killed me."

That very night after seeing the show for the first time, Michael made his own vow, just as Bruce Wayne did as a boy, kneeling over the bodies of his murdered parents. "My parents were safe in the kitchen, but I swore that somehow, some way, I would find a path to show the world the true Batman. The dark and serious creature of the night who stalks criminals from the shadows."

Batman was originally created in 1939, perhaps justly reflecting the dark days of the beginning of World War II. It was far from the campy version of the late 60's, when media really began it's role in the collective distraction of our society from bigger and more serious social issues. "I set out to try to erase from the collective consciousness of the world culture these three words: Pow, zap and Wham! That was what really set me on the path toward making these dark and serious Batman movies, the first of which was masterfully executed by Tim Burton in 1989."

This was the easy part. As he shares with college students, the real test is how you go about getting off your butt and knocking on doors. "The problem for me was: How do you get there from here? What happens when you have a dream and you are burning with a passion but have no means? I didn't come from money, I'm from a blue collar family. My dad was a stone mason and my mom was a bookkeeper. I couldn't buy my way into Hollywood to accomplish this and I didn't know anyone in Hollywood. So, when I talk to college students, I talk to them about my journey. I tell them 'Hey, I am no different form you.' I just had a dream and passion and I believe you have to be willing to forfeit any sense of entitlement that you have that the world owes you something or it's just going to come to you.

"If you are willing to get up off the damn couch and knock on doors until your knuckles bleed, you CAN make your dreams come true. I did it. The Batman movie franchise was built on my bloody knuckles. That is the message that I really take out. I say 'Use me as your example. I did it and so can you.' Is it easy? No. Is it quick? No. But if it's important to you and you have been lucky enough to discover what your passion in life might be, you have a great opportunity to follow that and make it a part of your life, for the rest of your life."

Michael's story doesn't end with his acquisition of the Batman franchise. In his 20's, Michael purchased the rights to Batman for movies, TV and animation. Against the strong advice of everyone, including the President of DC Comics himself, he spent the next 10 years being laughed out of every film studio meeting he made. We only have room for the condensed version of the story here, but if you'd like the full story about Michael's journey, check out his autobiography, 'The Boy Who Loved Batman,' available from Chronicle Books. Better yet, book him on your campus!

"How does a kid just into his 20's manage to get the rights to Batman? Well the answer is no one else on Planet Earth wanted it. Nobody was interested in Batman. The President of DC Comics at the time was horrified. He treated me in a very fatherly way and he said 'Michael, for God's sake, please don't do this. Since Batman went off the air on television he is as dead as the dodo. No one is interested in Batman anymore, save your money.'"

Michael's desire was not assuaged. "I knew that if I approached these as dark and serious movies, no one had ever seen that before. No one had ever seen dark and serious comic book movies, or dark and serious super heroes. It was almost like a new form of entertainment. I told him this, and that I thought we had the chance to do something really new. He asked me if there was any way he could talk me out of it. I told him no."

After a six month negotiation, on October 3, 1979, Michael and his partner acquired the rights to Batman. "At that time I had been unable to get a creative job in the movie industry. When I was graduating from college, I sent out 372 resumes my senior year. I got two job offers. One was in the mailroom of a big talent agency for $95 a week in New York and the other was working for a producer in L.A. fetching coffee. I couldn't figure out how to make that work so I had to come up with a plan B. For me, that was law school. I took every course I could find having anything to do with entertainment or communications and when I got out of law school I got a job at a movie studio as a motion picture production attorney. I learned how to produce and finance films and network like crazy in the industry. That was when I felt like I had the credentials to go back to DC Comics and buy the rights."

Michael says the most important step in the journey was not coming up with the overall concept and dream, but to actually put into action the steps necessary to put him in a position where he could acquire those rights. "Thanks to the genius of Tim Burton, our first film, 'Batman,' was a great success. But it was a long, hard ten year struggle because every studio told me I was out of my mind and turned me down. I never gave up, I held on by my fingertips and never knew where my next dollar was going to come from. Believe me, when everyone tells you your idea stinks and everything you are doing is wrong, it tests your mettle. You have to look deep inside yourself and ask 'Is everyone right? Am I just being stubborn, or do I really believe in myself?' I kept coming up with the answer that I was on the right path and thank goodness for Tim Burton, because everything changed."

To hear the rest of the story and a truly inspirational message for your students, call Mike D'Andrea at Greater Talent Network at (212) 905-3801 or MikeD@greatertalent.com.