Mention summer to theater owners and they fantasize about millions of ticket sales. But to those in the burgeoning promotional tie-in business, summer films mean bats, monkeys and morphins.

At the studios, the real stars of the summer are companies like McDonald’s, Burger King and Pepsi – companies that pour hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting the summer blockbusters. And this year, the amount of money is hitting record highs.

No one keeps official tabs, but Variety estimates corporate America will deliver about $200 million in the form of tie-ins to Hollywood this summer. The chains are buying instant excitement that builds foot traffic at franchises.

McDonald’s Corp. is throwing its weight behind both Warner Bros.’ franchise entry “Batman Forever” and 20th Century Fox’s “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.” Rival Burger King is hand in hand with Disney on the animated “Pocahontas.”

The sandwich chain Subway, which in the past has tied in with such action films as “Blown Away” and “T2” and family comedies like “The Coneheads,” is keeping quiet so far but is tying in with a spring family film from Disney called “Tall Tale.”

The biggest surprise this year is the extent to which Pepsico has come back into the promotional fray. After lying low last year, Pepsi is pouring big bucks into feature films. Pepsi and its Pizza Hut subsidiary reemerged as promo players this year with Amblin and Universal’s “Casper,” while Pepsico subsidiary Taco Bell and the soft drink brand are on board Paramount Pictures’ “Congo.”

Universal’s “Waterworld,” one feature film that could have used the millions of dollars that one of the burger biggies provides, hasn’t been able to nail down a major fast food partner as yet. According to executives at competing studios, some companies were scared off because of negative press surrounding the over-budget production. Not that the film is without merchandising deals. Some 20 licensees are on board for “Waterworld,” including Kenner Toys – which is putting together an action figure line with the likeness of star Kevin Costner, who has previously shied away from granting such rights. On “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” the actor would only allow silhouettes of himself to be used on merchandise.

Kenner is actually the master toy licensee on several films, including “Congo” and “Batman Forever.”

Warner Bros., whose “Batman Forever” presentation was one of the highlights at New York’s Toy Fair last week, has also lined up over 100 licensees for the property. Studio chairman Terry Semel, along with consumer products group head Dan Romanelli and director Joel Schumacher, presented a 3 1/2 minute trailer at the Toy Fair – with cast members Val Kilmer, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Chris O’Donnell and Drew Barrymore in attendance.

At one point McDonald’s and Disney had discussed resurrecting a promotional relationship for “Pocahontas.” The collapse of negotiations between the restaurant chain and Disney occurred after the studio refused to give up any video rights as part of a feature promotion.

McDonald’s then kicked the tires over at Amblin on “Casper,” but although the burger-meister wanted to structure a feature film promotion that would include a tie-in with a video, the company ultimately opted for a feature deal with WB on “Batman Forever,” which opens June 16.

The fast food giant is planning a major video tie-in at Christmas with Warners as part of its feature promotional deal on “Batman Forever.” The titles are yet to be announced.

At last year’s Video Software Dealers Association confab, then Walt Disney studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg took issue with McDonald’s and blasted video tie-ins as “a Faustian bargain designed to mortgage the future of the home video industry.” Such tie-ins, which offer consumers steep discounts on cassettes, alienate conventional video outlets and, according to Katzenberg, lessen the perception of value for video.

Readjusted approach

Because McDonald’s was criticized by parent groups for tying into the dark and violent “Batman Returns,” the company readjusted its approach to feature film promos, taking a harder look at tie-ins geared toward children.

This summer McDonald’s is splitting its promotional activity between an adult program for “Batman Forever” and a kids meal with Saban and 20th Century Fox on “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.”

With McDonald’s, Kenner Toys, Kelloggs and vidgame company Acclaim Entertainment all on board for “Batman Forever,” the studio will get an added boost of about $45 million to $50 million in media support. Time Warner-owned Six Flags amusement parks, which flooded the airwaves with TV support on “Batman Returns,” will once again launch a major TV campaign.

Meanwhile, Disney and Burger King are putting a major promotional effort behind “Pocahontas.” The two companies have enjoyed an extremely successful relationship over the past three years, huddling on “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.” Corporate players consider last summer’s “Lion King”-Burger King promotion to have outshined McDonald’s effort on “The Flintstones.”

“Pocahontas” will get about $25 million in media support from Burger King alone. Adding up the other promotional partners – including Mattel, Nestle Foods, Payless Shoe Source and General Mills – Disney will realize about $45-$50 million in media support for the film, which is slated for release June 23. The Chrysler Corp. is also said to be looking at “Pocahontas.” Disney also bowed an impressive licensing program at Toy Fair.

Because of the global reach of “Power Rangers,” 20th Century Fox and Saban Entertainment have put together a worldwide promotional program that includes geographic, country-by-country tie-ins with McDonald’s doing the U.S. and Latin America and Burger King in Europe.

In addition, “Hungry Jacks” will be the promotional chain in Australia. Other promotional partners include Choice Hotels, 7-Up, Jello and Discovery Zone (kid’s activity centers). All told, the property has about $30 million in added media to promote the film. The largest toy company in Japan, Bandai, is the master toy licensee.

“Casper,” opening May 26, will get a promotional push worth about $30 million to $35 million from its promotional partners, including Pizza Hut and Pepsi. Tyco, Choice Hotels and other licensees are also weighing in. “Casper” also had a major bow at Toy Fair with “Casper” cast members Christina Ricci and Cathy Moriarty.

Paramount Pictures has a cup promotion from Taco Bell on “Congo” in 5,700 restaurants and Pepsi is stepping up again to tout the film as is master toy licensee Kenner. Both bring millions to help promote the film.

Paramount’s partners

Paramount also found partners for “Indian in the Cupboard” such as Baskin-Robbins. The studio has put together several media promotions on other films including “Clueless” and the Mel Gibson starring and directed period piece “Braveheart.”

Warner Bros, has also put together a solid program for “Free Willy II” with Best Western hotels and a big tie-in with the studio stores.

New Line Cinema will get a push from both Hasbro and Acclaim, two of 75 licensees for “Mortal Kombat.” Deals are still being negotiated in the fast food and beverage categories.

Cinergi and Disney have brought aboard several licensees, including Mattel and Acclaim, to help promote the Sylvester Stallone June 30 opener “Judge Dredd.”