LOS ANGELES — Fevered fans pushed “The Dark Knight,” the sixth in Warner Brothers’ series of “Batman” movies, to record three-day ticket sales of $155.3 million over the weekend, shoring up what so far had been a wobbly year at the movie box office.
Including a solid $27.6 million for the musical “Mamma Mia!” from Universal, the weekend’s top 12 films took in about $249.6 million, according to the box office consultant Media By Numbers. That lifted the domestic box office total for the year so far to $5.36 billion.
That is still down about 1 percent from last year, and the number of theatergoers is down 3.7 percent. But the weekend performance gave studios and theater owners alike reason to take heart, as it proved that even a familiar franchise like the “Batman” series can still bring surprises.
“It just took on a life of its own,” said Dan Fellman, Warner’s president for theatrical distribution. “You never expect anything like this.”
Unusual excitement began to build weeks ago around “The Dark Knight,” much of it fed by anticipation of a performance as the villainous Joker by Heath Ledger, the Australian actor who died in January.
Theaters began adding midnight and early morning screenings of the film, as fans scooped up advance tickets from the online ticket services Fandango.com and Movietickets.com. At sellout shows around the country, audiences — including more than a few viewers who came made up to resemble Mr. Ledger’s evil clown character — pushed Friday ticket sales to an estimated $66.4 million, including an extraordinary $18.5 million from the midnight showings.
That the film’s opening took on an event status that previous “Batman” movies never quite achieved apparently owed something to its strong presence in the outsized Imax format.
The film —directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale — was filmed partly using Imax cameras, and opened on nearly 100 Imax screens in the United States. That meant a boost at the box office because Imax tickets cost an average of $12.80, about 75 percent more than the overall average ticket price of $7.08, as estimated by Media By Numbers.
Imax screenings contributed $6.2 million to the “Dark Knight” box office, beating its previous record, for “Spider-Man 3,” by more than 30 percent, said Greg Foster, the president of filmed entertainment for Imax Corp.
To date, the summer box office had been solid, but not spectacular, with ticket for the season up slightly at $2.76 billion, thanks to price inflation, and attendance down about 2 percent. Films like “Iron Man” from Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios, and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” from Paramount and LucasFilm, topped the $300 million mark.
But “Hancock,” an off-center superhero movie from Sony Pictures and the star Will Smith, came up short of last year’s “Transformers” over the July Fourth holiday, and several pictures, including “Meet Dave” from Eddie Murphy and 20th Century Fox fell flat.
This weekend, Fox suffered another embarrassment with “Space Chimps,” an animated film that took in just $7.4 million and placed seventh at the box office.
A strong opening like that of “The Dark Knight” tends to drive future ticket sales, as viewers find their appetites piqued. In this case, a future beneficiary may be “Terminator Salvation,” a Warner action film scheduled to open next May: The movie’s trailer was attached to “The Dark Knight,” putting it in front of a particularly eager audience.
The box office take for “Mamma Mia!,” which starred Meryl Streep, was almost identical to that on the equivalent weekend last year by “Hairspray,” a New Line Cinema musical that took in $27.5 million in first-weekend sales and went on to make $118.9 million.
Other top-performing films over the weekend included “Hancock,” with $14 million (for a total of $191.5 million); “Journey to the Center of the Earth” from Warner, with $11.9 million (a total of $43.1)million; “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” from Universal, with $10 million ($56.4 million total); and “Wall-E” from the Walt Disney Company with $9.8 million ($182.5 million total).
For all the record-setting, the weekend’s performance also underscored how much harder studios have been working for their hits in recent years.
In 1989, “Batman,” with a reported budget of $35 million, opened to about $40.5 million and went on to take in more than $251 million at the domestic box office.
“The Dark Knight,” by contrast, has been reported to cost over $180 million. Given the pattern of contemporary blockbusters, the film appears unlikely to match the performance of its predecessor, whose domestic box office sales would be on the order of $450 million if adjusted to reflect ticket price inflation.
Today’s event films tend to open bigger, and disappear more quickly, than those of the past. Thus, “Spider-Man 3” took in about 45 percent of its $336.5 million in total sales on its opening weekend, and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” took in 37 percent of its $309.4 million on the first weekend last year.
“Batman,” by contrast, relied on the opening weekend for just 16 percent of sales.
Mr. Fellman said he believed “The Dark Knight” would continue to outpace “Spider-Man 3” in coming days, thanks to a midsummer date
when school is out. “Spider-Man 3” was released in early May and had to fight harder for midweek business.
By the week’s end, Mr. Fellman said, “The Dark Knight” is likely to take in more than the $205 million in total domestic ticket sales for its immediate predecessor, “Batman Begins,” in 2005.
Source : NYTIMES