High expectations for 'Dark Knight'

The rollout, hype are huge for Warners' Batman film

Overwhelmingly positive early reviews and buzz on Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker are producing some potentially batty forecasts for the opening of "The Dark Knight." Yet there's just no denying that its bow will be impressive, if not a record.

Most important, Christopher Nolan is back in the director's chair for the seventh film in the Batman series, and Christian Bale is again toplining. Their collaboration on the franchise-reinventing "Batman Begins" proved so popular with critics and fans alike that the dynamic duo's latest collaboration should open with a gross more than twice as big as their first.

"Batman Begins" grossed $48.7 million during the June 15, 2005, weekend and boasted a five-day tally of $72.9 million after bowing early June 13. Its total domestic haul of $205.3 million was a franchise second-best, following the $251.2 million rung up by the original "Batman" in 1989.

But a couple of other comic book films might offer more meaningful metrics for the Caped Crusader's impending performance.

The smart money has "Dark Knight" debuting somewhere south of "Spider-Man 3" -- which unspooled to a record $151.1 million during the May 4, 2007, weekend -- and north of "Iron Man," which opened during the May 2 weekend with $102.1 million. The "Iron Man" tally included about $3.5 million from May 1 previews.

Warners hasn't offered previews on "Dark Knight," but exhibitors have gotten creative with their Friday showtimes. In addition to thousands of venues scheduling 12:01 a.m. showtimes, scores of theaters have programmed the Batman film for 6 a.m. Friday slots and the like.

Warners staged a Monday premiere of the film in New York -- inspiration for the comic book's Gotham City setting -- and another one Wednesday in Chicago, where much of the film was shot.

"To have a movie that's not only so commercial but also so well-reviewed is a real tribute to Chris Nolan," Warners domestic distribution president Dan Fellman said. "He's a real visionary when he plans out a movie. It's been interesting to talk to the cast members when they talk about how special it was to work with him."

The film's more than 4,366 domestic playdates is a record, surpassing the 4,362 theaters for May 2007's bow of "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End." Double- and triple-screening at many venues means "Dark Knight" will play on 9,200 screens in the U.S. and Canada.

Its engagements include 94 Imax venues -- Nolan shot long segments using Imax-format cameras -- and most of those giant-screen auditoriums were sold out by midweek. A Warners exec estimated that Imax presales totaled $3.5 million, with advance ticketing for other venues adding considerably to that total.

"Its presales are tremendous in general," a top distribution exec at a rival studio noted, with more than a hint of admiration. The record playdates brought similar plaudits from competitor distributors, who noted the recent crush of summer titles has made it tougher than ever to book venues.

"Dark Knight" also bows in more than a dozen foreign markets this weekend and several more the following frame, but some of the bigger territories won't get the film until August because of calendar-driven marketing considerations in some countries. "Dark Knight" rung up a big first-day estimate of almost $2.3 million Wednesday in Australia, where the territory's usual Thursday bow was moved up one day to take advantage of a final week of school holidays.

Still, three factors dim prospects for "Dark Knight" just a tad.

The first is its running time, which like "Batman Begins" is almost 2 1?2 hours. That's a long movie to program multiple times over the course of the day, crack-of-dawn showtimes notwithstanding.

Then there's the question of whether Batman can ever fly as high as, say, Spidey. When a franchise's best-grossing film is still the 19-year-old original, perhaps there is an inherent limit to its prospective audience.

Finally, this weekend isn't completely free from competition, though the other two wide openers are fairly obvious examples of counterprogramming, targeting demos less likely to gravitate to "Dark Knight."

Universal opens its big-screen adaptation of the ABBA-inflected musical "Mamma Mia!" on Friday, and prerelease tracking is strong with women of all ages. Industryites look for something around $25 million, and its almost $27 million launch in a dozen territories last weekend was certainly auspicious.

Also, Fox will unspool its animated family comedy "Space Chimps," which looks likely to chip in $8 million-$10 million as the collective boxoffice attempts to put summer 2008 back on a winning track.

The industry has posted year-over-year downticks the past few weekends. But this session's comparison is with a relatively tame year-ago frame, which registered less than $155 million in overall coin.

That probably represents another challenge for "Dark Knight." It seems unlikely that the marketplace could expand so dramatically from the comparable year-ago frame as to allow for an industry-record opening for "Dark Knight," a solid "Mamma Mia!" bow and several million in grosses for dozens of holdover films.

A more reasonable scenario would see Warners post a studio record opening. "Dark Knight" is highly likely to best June 2004's $93.7 million bow for "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."

Hy Hollinger contributed to this report.