Holy opening weekend, Batman!
"The Dark Knight," the long-awaited sequel from Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, sold $155.3 million in tickets this weekend, according to early estimates from its distributor, setting a record for the biggest three-day take and cementing the primacy of superhero movies at the cineplex.
Batman's haul surpassed the bar set last year by Sony Pictures Entertainment's "Spider-Man 3" by $4.2 million and set the pace for what turned out to be the top-grossing overall box-office weekend in U.S. history, with an estimated $253 million in sales. The previous No. 1 weekend brought in $218 million two years ago, when "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" opened.
" 'The Dark Knight' overshadowed everything, but a rising tide lifts all ships," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracking company Media by Numbers. "This was just a great weekend for the entire industry."
The news of the Batman sequel's success raised cheers in some corners of Hollywood, and eyebrows elsewhere, as a few close observers questioned whether "The Dark Knight" had truly surpassed "Spider-Man 3." Adjusted for ticket price inflation, Batman's latest effort, starring Christian Bale, may have fallen slightly short of last year's wall-crawler in total sales.
The average movie ticket in 2008 costs $7.08, compared with $6.88 last year, according to Media by Numbers. By simple arithmetic, that means "Dark Knight" sold about 21.94 million tickets, compared with 21.96 million for the web slinger.
Final box-office figures for the weekend will not be known until today, when actual results are reported. Frequently the final figures are less than Sunday's estimates, although sometimes they are higher.
U.S. box-office receipts have reached $5.36 billion for the year, down 0.9% from last year at this time. But experts said the strong recent showing, along with upcoming films such as the fourth installment in the "Mummy" series, will help shore up the summer. However, overall attendance is down 3.7% since Jan. 1, to 757 million tickets sold. For all of 2007, attendance fell just under 1% compared with 2006, according to Media by Numbers.
This weekend's No. 2 film, Universal Pictures' ABBA musical "Mamma Mia!" starring Meryl Streep, brought in a strong $27.6 million, followed by Sony Pictures' holdover "Hancock," starring Will Smith, at $14 million. "Space Chimps" was a relative flop. The G-rated release from 20th Century Fox brought in just $7.4 million, coming in at seventh place in its opening weekend.
Batman's triumph means three of the top five opening weekends of all time belong to films inspired by comic books. The original "Spider-Man," which brought in $114.8 million during its opening weekend in 2002, ranks No. 5 overall.
Despite huge expectations going into the release, the Caped Crusader turned in a massive performance in his sixth outing. The PG-13 film set the record for top single-day receipts Friday, hauling in almost $67.9 million on a record 4,366 screens, according to Media by Numbers.
Shot partially in Imax and shown on 94 Imax screens, "The Dark Knight" also set a weekend record for the oversize format, taking in $6.2 million. Imax tickets cost significantly more than regular tickets, which can skew the box-office total. "Spider-Man 3" also opened in Imax theaters, but on only 84 screens.
Year to date, the biggest pictures are "Iron Man," which has brought in $314.4 million in the U.S., and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," with a domestic total of $312.6 million.
The Bat-buzz was off the charts going into Friday -- fueled by the success of the hero's previous appearance on the silver screen, 2005's "Batman Begins" (also directed by Chris Nolan), and because "The Dark Knight" features the final appearance of Heath Ledger, who plays the Joker. Ledger died in January at age 28 of an accidental drug overdose.
Nationwide, showing after showing sold out, with lines stretching around city blocks in some cases.
In Santa Monica on Saturday, eight high school buddies bought tickets for the 11 p.m. show more than 2 1/2 hours before the previews began. They did so, said Holden Foshag, because they'd been unable to get in the night before.
"It was totally sold out," said Holden, a basketball player who will enter his senior year at Santa Monica High in the fall. "I just have to see this movie."
Dan Fellman, head of domestic distribution for Warner Bros., said the 2 1/2 -hour-long picture was on pace to smash the record for top opening-week take across the country as well. He expected it to bring in $220 million through Thursday. No movie has ever racked up more than $200 million domestically in a single week. If "The Dark Knight" does, sales would exceed the estimated $180 million that Warner Bros. spent to produce the film.
"Not only will it crush the record, but we'll probably exceed the entire gross on the last Batman movie in the first five days," Fellman said.