Holy opening weekend, Batman!
"The Dark Knight," the long-awaited superhero sequel from Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, sold an estimated $155.3 million in tickets this weekend, setting a record for biggest three-day take and cementing the primacy of superhero movies at the cineplex.
Batman's haul surpassed the bar set last year by "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 ticket sales. The previous top weekend was a $218 million take 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 weekend's No. 2 film, Universal Pictures' ABBA musical "Mamma Mia!," brought in $27.6 million, followed by Sony Pictures' holdover "Hancock," starring Will Smith, at $14 million.
Batman's latest triumph means that three of the top five opening weekends of all time now belong to comic book-inspired films. The original "Spider-Man," which brought in $118.4 million in its 2002 opening weekend, ranks No. 5 overall.
Despite huge expectations going into the release, the Caped Crusader's sixth film was massive by practically any measure. The PG-13 movie set the record for top single-day receipts on Friday, hauling in $67.85 million on a record 4,366 screens, according to Media by Numbers.
The Bat-buzz was off the charts going into Friday -- fueled by the success of the previous Batman installment, 2005's "Batman Begins" (also directed by Chris Nolan), and because "The Dark Knight" is the last film 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 night, 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 tickets the night before.
"It was totally sold out," said Foshag, a basketball player who will enter his senior year at Santa Monica High School in the fall. "I just have to see this movie," he said.
Dan Fellman, head of domestic distribution for Warner Bros., said the 2 1/2 -hour-long picture is on pace to smash the record for top opening-week take in the United States as well. He expects it to bring in $220 million through Thursday. No movie has ever brought in over $200 million domestically in a single week. If "The Dark Knight" does, that total would exceed the estimated $180 million that Warner Bros. spent to make 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, brushing off quibbles that, adjusted for ticket price inflation, "Dark Knight" actually fell slightly short of Sony Pictures Entertainment's "Spider-Man 3" in total ticket sales.
The average movie ticket in 2008 costs $7.08, compared to $6.88 a year ago. That means "Dark Knight" sold approximately 21.94 million tickets, compared to 21.96 million for the web slinger.
Whether Batman can do as well overseas seems less clear. "Dark Knight" debuted this weekend in 20 markets, including Brazil, Mexico and Australia. While it led in the markets it opened in, it didn't set the all-time record for a weekend in any of them. It has not yet been released in most of Europe, Japan and South Korea.
Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, president of international distribution at Warner Bros., said the Batman franchise tends to play stronger in the U.S. "It's a nuance of the Batman franchise," she said. "Spider-Man would have played stronger."
The previous best U.S. opening weekend for a Bat-pic was "Batman Forever," which brought in $52.8 million in 1995. The top grossing installment of all time was "Batman Begins," which totaled $205.3 million in the U.S. and $372.4 million worldwide.
Notably for a film heavy on costumed muscle-men, pyrotechnics and Bat-gadgets, 48% of the audience for "The Dark Knight" were women, according to Warner Bros., a much higher percentage than for previous installments of the Gotham guardian's saga.
For "Mamma Mia!" the ratio was completely different. Three out of four attendees were women, and many of them had seen the Broadway musical by the same name. According to Nikki Rocco, president of domestic distribution for Universal Pictures, the release was intended as a bit of counter-programming to "Dark Night."
"This has worked out exactly as we planned it," she said. According to Media by Numbers, "Mamma" set the opening weekend for a musical, squeaking past "Hairspray" by about $140,000.
But for Jaimie Geller of Pacific Palisades, "Mamma Mia!" was of little interest. Passing up the song and dance routine, she stood first in line, along with her husband, to see a 10 p.m. showing of "The Dark Knight" on Saturday in Santa Monica.
"I don't really care about Batman," she said. "I came here to see Heath Ledger."