The superhero sequel The Dark Knight and the musical Mamma Mia! debut head to head in what could a tight race for the number one spot. Or one film might open $100M higher than the other. Either way, the North American box office will soar to dizzying heights and become one of the highest-grossing weekends in movie history. The kidpic Space Chimps also enters the mix hoping to attract a few children, but overall multiplexes will be jam packed as the top ten films alone are set to generate well over $200M.
Riding a wave of anticipation not seen in some time, The Dark Knight arrives in theaters at midnight on Thursday night and is sure to explode with one of the largest openings in history. Warner Bros. is releasing the PG-13 film in a record 4,366 theaters (including 94 IMAX locations) with an estimated 9,200 total screens. The theater count inches past the 4,362 of last year’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End which used to be the widest opener in that category. As for total screens, Dark Knight‘s count is not as high as the 10,000 screens that Sony secured for Spider-Man 3 when it set the all-time opening weekend record in May 2007 with $151.3M, but it is higher than the 8,500 screens that the second biggest opener Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest locked in two years ago in July 2006 for its then-record $135.6M launch. Both megahits averaged between $15,000-16,000 per screen and between $32,000-36,000 per theater.
The new Batman saga reunites Christian Bale with director Christopher Nolan, the pair seen by many as making the best Caped Crusader film ever with 2005’s Batman Begins. Box office comparisons between it and Dark Knight are pointless as Begins bowed on a Wednesday in June with a brand new cast and crew trying to reboot a franchise that was nearly killed by the prior installment, 1997’s laughable Batman & Robin. Begins opened to $48.7M over three days and $72.9M over five days and found its way to a solid $205.3M rejuvenating the franchise in the process. This time around, the number of moviegoers willing to buy a ticket upfront will be significantly higher.
Joining Bale again are veteran actors Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman while new to the series are Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and the late Heath Ledger. Much has been said about Ledger’s death and its impact on the film. Anticipation for the $180M-budgeted Dark Knight has only surged since the actor’s tragic accident. If he had a less prominent role or played a more basic character it would be a different case. But the marketing of the pic before his death was already centered on the film’s most high-profile new addition – The Joker and Ledger’s bold and gritty interpretation of the iconic villain. Even those not usually excited about comic book flicks are snapping up advance tickets to see the last great performance of a talented Oscar-nominated actor. Males will always come out for these types of movies, but the Heath Ledger factor gives a great boost to female interest.
Despite odd promotional partnerships with companies like Domino’s Pizza and Comcast, the overall marketing campaign has been absolutely brilliant and effective. Warner Bros. is pushing the film, but not overhyping it. In fact, with so much free publicity and fan buzz, the studio doesn’t need to go gung ho here. And Ledger’s performance has been in the spotlight just enough to create excitement, but not so much that it borders on exploitation. Reviews have also been glowing across the board and rival the high praise that Iron Man received at the summer kickoff point. Dark Knight stands a good chance of flying past the metal man’s total box office to swipe the 2008 box office crown by summer’s end giving DC Comics a rare victory over Marvel.
The new Batman clocks in at 152 minutes which many think will hurt its chances of reaching record heights, but that will not be the case. The last two films to break the all-time opening weekend record also were about two-and-a-half hours in length with Dead Man’s Chest at 150 minutes and Spider-Man 3 at 140. Studios and exhibitors compensated for the length by booking multiple screens every chance they could to make sure as many showtimes per day could be offered. This will be in play again this weekend with Knight.
As for comparisons, Chest is the best film to measure up to Dark Knight. Both are star-driven sequels with dizzying amounts of fan anticipation opening on a Friday in July with a two-and-a-half-hour length. July greatly differs from May (the month that eight of the top ten openings of all-time came from) in that there is more competition for films, screens, plus audience and media attention. The rest of the top ten grossed $27.4M when Spider-Man 3 debuted but $71.8M when Chest opened. Dark Knight will be in a tougher spot as the nine titles after it on the charts this weekend could absorb a whopping $100M or so. That’s a lot of business that is pre-destined to go to non-Joker films this weekend. But July does benefit from stronger midweek grosses since students of all ages are out of school. Chest scored $60.4M during its first Monday-to-Thursday span, almost double the $31M for the third Spidey in early May.
One factor that could have a small impact is the Mamma Mia! debut. Nine of the ten blockbusters that have opened to more than $100M did so with either no new films debuting against it, or with only minor new titles facing it that grossed less than $4M. Clear sailing helps every subgroup of moviegoers focus on just one event film. And while the ABBA songfest is about as opposite of a film as you can get, there will be pockets of young and older women deciding to avoid the Bat-lines and see Meryl first, saving Heath’s final performance for later.
Also likely to cause a minor dent is the darker nature of the film. Sales from younger children could be in jeopardy if parents find the film to be too scary. The Pirates pics, Harry Potter sagas, and Spider-Man tales, even the last one, promised lighter fare and more fun. Look at the top ten openings in box office history and all are more kid-friendly than Dark Knight which is essentially a comic book epic for grownups.
Still, Warner Bros. will need extra bank vaults to store the cash that’s about to come rolling in for the must-see blockbuster of 2008. For the Friday-to-Sunday period, The Dark Knight might fly to the neighborhood of $132M.
Folks not in the mood for dark violence will certainly find cheery upbeat fun in Mamma Mia! which should post long-term numbers more like Dreamgirls and Hairspray than like Rent or The Producers. The music from ABBA is also a solid commercial asset. Fun films with a female skew have been winning over audiences all year from Juno, 27 Dresses, and Hannah Montana at the start of the year to Baby Mama, What Happens in Vegas, and Sex and the City in recent months. Mamma will keep the party going for underserved audiences sick and tired of superheroes and all their personal issues. Dancing into 2,976 locations, Mamma Mia! might bow to about $28M this weekend.
Will Smith‘s Hancock should hold up a little better since it’s going into its third frame and has been posting solid numbers with ticket buyers taking back the number one spot on Monday and Tuesday this week. Still, The Dark Knight will be a direct competitor so a 50% decline to around $16M may result boosting Sony’s cume to $193M. The 3D adventure Journey to the Center of the Earth won’t be immune to The Joker’s fury. A 45% drop to roughly $11M could occur giving New Line and Warner Bros. $42M over ten days.
WALL•E and Wanted both enter frame number four and may experience drops of 40% and 45%, respectively. Disney and Pixar would collect around $11M for a $183M sum while Universal would see $6.5M and boost its tally to $124M.
LAST YEAR: Adam Sandler scored his latest number one opener with I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry which took in $34.2M for Universal on its way to $120.1M. In its second weekend, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix dropped a spot to second with $32.5M smashing through the $200M barrier in the process. New Line’s new musical Hairspray debuted in third with a solid $27.5M and found its way to a robust $118.9M. Transformers claimed the fourth spot with $20.5M in its third weekend and the animated comedy Ratatouille placed fifth with $10.9M in its fourth outing.
Author: Gitesh Pandya, www.BoxOfficeGuru.com