DVDs mean 'Dark Knight' won't top 'Titanic'

Batman film unlikely to bust domestic record

Oh, the delicious irony: an unsinkable boxoffice record for a film called "Titanic."

It's a buoyancy traceable to teenage girls. "Titanic" bowed in December 1997 and played strongly well into 1998, cruising into cinematic history on support from females inspired to see the big-screen heroics of Leonardo DiCaprio time after time after time.

The epidemic of serial "Titantic"-viewing mostly was a teen fever but one that spread from Toledo to Tokyo to Timbuktu. Fueled by such ardent fervor -- and a boatload of awards-season kudos for the seafaring romantic drama -- "Titanic" sailed to $600.8 million in domestic loot and $1.24 billion internationally.

Fast-forward 10-plus years, and Warner Bros.' Batman blockbuster "The Dark Knight" has soared to an incredible $441.6 million domestically and $263.5 million internationally through just its first four weekends. It's been a boxoffice burst of such unprecedented proportions as to outpace even "Titanic" over a comparable period, stoking speculation of whether the "Titanic" record would finally run into an iceberg.

Yet the theatrical waters have changed dramatically during the past decade thanks to the rise of the megaplex -- allowing double- and triple-screen showings of films in single venues -- and the onset of supersaturation releasing in 4,000 or more theaters.

"Dark Knight" and other major releases now ring up mind-bending sums over their first couple weekends, with "Dark Knight" grossing a record $313.8 million domestically through its first 10 days. That makes it something of an apples-and-oranges comparison in trying to project whether the appetite for a contemporary release will match the historic performance of an older film deep into a theatrical run.

In any event, such an analysis soon could be rendered moot. For there's one simple reason the boxoffice party likely will end sooner rather than later for "Dark Knight," and it's spelled D-V-D.

Warners has yet to slot the Batman sequel's home video release, but well-placed sources said a December release is highly likely to tap into the lucrative holiday gift-giving season. So even if "Dark Knight" topliner Christian Bale, his late co-star Heath Ledger, director Christopher Nolan or the film itself attract awards hardware in the winter, any related theatrical promos would be of limited value at the boxoffice.

How many people are going to go see "Dark Knight" at the theater when it's also playing in their living room?

It's no coincidence that the only film to stand between "Dark Knight" and "Titanic" in boxoffice rankings -- "Star Wars," with $461 million in domestic coin -- also is a classic title. Videocassettes hadn't even come into common use when the sci-fi classic unspooled in 1977.

Of course, the Imax version of "Dark Knight" holds some special theatrical appeal. But even with widespread sellouts at Imax auditoriums during the past four weeks, the availability of just 94 such venues has meant the giant-screen version of the film has tallied a notable but limited domestic cume of $31 million.

That's hardly going to help fuel a theatrical run sufficient to outdistance "Titanic," a distance almost $160 million north of where "Dark Knight" sits today.

Warners domestic distribution president Dan Fellman figures the Batman sequel will cross $500 million by Labor Day and eventually reach $515 million-$520 million in total domestic boxoffice, judging from its performances to date. (International coin is more difficult to predict as "Dark Knight" still is rolling out in some foreign territories, but it appears likely domestic tallies will outdistance overseas boxoffice.)

" 'Titanic' was once in a lifetime, and I don't think we'll ever have another gross like that in the history of the industry," Warners domestic distribution president Dan Fellman said. "Of course, if there is one, I'd like to have it."

It should be noted that industryites were looking for a frame-over-frame drop of 45% for "Dark Knight" last weekend. Instead, the Batman sequel posted a modest 39% falloff from the previous session's grosses to post a $26.1 million weekend and hold at No. 1.

With that kind of unforeseen market traction, don't expect the "Titanic" comparisons to go away anytime soon.

"That percentage and the gross are both impressive," a distribution exec at a rival studio said. "I don't think it's going to catch 'Titanic,' but I don't think its something to dismiss out of hand."

Assuming Warners releases "Dark Knight" in early- to mid-December on DVD, that would give the studio's theatrical marketing team a tempting opportunity over the oft-lucrative Thanksgiving period.

Yet it's unlikely the studio would want to create such a big market push as to deflect attention from its all-important holiday release "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." The sixth "Potter" film is set to unspool Nov. 21.

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