Batty b.o. booty

Warner Bros.' 'Dark Knight' does $155.3 mil to drive a $258 mil weekend, both record highs

"The Dark Knight" broke records like a disc jockey gone wild during the weekend, upsetting former record-holder "Spider-Man 3" with a best-ever opening estimated at $155.3 million.

The industry-record bow naturally yielded a studio high for Warner Bros. and personal bests for director Christopher Nolan and a cast that includes topliner Christian Bale and Heath Ledger. But no less impressively, it also anchored a three-day domestic weekend boxoffice record of $258 million, according to Nielsen EDI data.

Universal's star-studded adaptation of the Broadway musical "Mamma Mia!" took second place during the phenomenal frame with a $27.6 million opening built on support from older females. Fox's animated family comedy "Space Chimps" debuted in seventh place with $7.4 million.

Industrywide, the session's collective boxoffice bested the $218.2 million weekend performance of July 7-9, 2006, which featured a $135.6 million opening for Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."

The industry record made mincemeat of conventional wisdom that a mid-July session could never pack such a punch and restored momentum in a seasonal boxoffice that's now pulled even with the same portion of summer 2007. Year to date, 2008 still lags behind last year by 1% at $5.21 billion, EDI said.

Despite handicaps including a nearly 2 1/2-hour running time, the rapturously reviewed "Dark Knight" muscled aside previous record opener "Spider-Man 3," which Sony opened to $151.1 million in May 2007. The latest "Batman" sequel dwarfed a previous pairing of Nolan and Bale on "Batman Begins," which unspooled on a Wednesday in June 2005 to gross $72.9 million over its initial five days including a first-weekend haul of $48.7 million.

"This is a career-capper for anybody who works on a film like this in our business," Warners distribution president Dan Fellman said. "It's a great ride, and it's just beginning, Most of the big summer films have already come out, so we have a great play time ahead of us."

"Dark Knight" was produced in association with the Wall Street-funded Legendary Pictures, which co-financed half of the $180 million-plus production.

Although it also bowed big in more than a dozen foreign territories during the weekend, most of the initial focus for "Dark Knight" was on its domestic performance. Industry officials now assume the film will be the summer's biggest grosser, with some suggesting a domestic run of $350 million is assured simply on the basis of its first weekend.

Audience demographics for "Dark Knight" were ideally broad. Males represented 52% of patrons, with ticket-buyers evenly split between those under 25 and older moviegoers.

Grosses included $6.2 million from 94 Imax screens, which completely sold out throughout the weekend. The giant-screen haul solidly outpaced a previous Imax record of $4.7 million in Imax sales for the first weekend of "Spider-Man 3."

"We sold out every single ticket in the country at every show," Imax Filmed Entertainment president Greg Foster said. "We're certainly sold out throughout (the weekend), and the majority of our theaters have sell-outs into next weekend and beyond. Our Web site has shut down multiple times."

Nolan shot 30 minutes of the film using an Imax camera, stoking interest in the giant-screen version of "Dark Knight."

Yet perhaps the biggest buzz-inducing element of the film's pre-release marketing was its emphasis on Heath Ledger's role as Batman's nemesis the Joker.

Jack Nicholson played the character in 1989's "Batman," which starred Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader. But in keeping with the grim tone of Nolan's Batman films, Ledger brought a darker, more brooding approach to the character, and there's talk he could be rewarded with a posthumous Oscar nomination for his success in pulling off the role.

Tim Burton's original "Batman" fetched $251.2 million. For 19 years, that's been a franchise-best domestic run, but now the tally is simply another record to be shattered by "Dark Knight."

Friday was the sunniest day for "Dark Knight," with an industry-record haul of $67.9 million brightened by thousands of midnight showings and even such highly unusual showtimes as 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. Friday brought in an estimated $48.1 million, and Warners penciled in roughly $39 million for Sunday.

"Mamma Mia!" — whose strong international cast includes Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard — drew audiences that were three-fourths female, with 62% of patrons age 30 and over.

"I'm so happy we were able to join in with the phenomenal weekend we're having," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said.

Before the weekend, Universal execs feared a record performance by "Dark Knight" might limit grosses for "Mamma Mia!" but the film ended up on the high end of prerelease projections in mounting a record opening for a musical. Assuming its weekend estimate holds up, "Mamma Mia!" outpaced previous record-holder "Hairspray," a New Line release that bowed last July to $27.5 million.

"Space Chimps" — distributed by Fox and financed by Starz Media — skewed almost entirely to family moviegoers, as anticipated, and was never expected to figure among the frame's top grossers.

"It was right in the range we were expecting," Fox senior vp distribution Bert Livingston said.

Holdover films seemed a bit lost in the "Dark Knight" tsunami despite the record weekend boxoffice, though some films made out better than others.

Universal's "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" — the boxoffice champ last weekend — plummeted 71% in its second frame to $10 million in fifth place and a still-solid 10-day cume of $56.4 million.

But the 3-D adventure film "Journey to the Center of the Earth" from Warners, New Line and Walden Media dropped just 43% in its sophomore session — thanks to strong support from its hundreds of 3-D screens — to gross $11.9 million in fourth place with a $43.1 million cume.

Fox's Eddie Murphy comedy "Meet Dave" tumbled out of the top 10 on a big 69% decline in its second frame, earning $1.6 million and marking a $9.4 million cume.

This weekend will feature two more wide openers, and it will bear watching how "Dark Knight's" second weekend, guaranteed to be a strong one, affects their performances.

Fox unspools a second "X-Files" movie, "The X-Files: I Want to Believe," with the big question for the PG-13 supernatural thriller being how many fans will still be interested in checking out another big-screen adaptation of the onetime Fox TV series. Additionally, Sony sends out the R-rated comedy "Step Brothers," starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, whose most recent comedy outings have been a bit iffy. (partialdiff)
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