Dark Knight takes flight

'Batman' franchise hopes to rise again

Hoping to reverse the season’s lackluster B.O. results, Warner Bros. is launching “Batman Begins” today in 3,718 theaters domestically and 71 territories worldwide.

On Friday, pic will expand to 3,858 locations in the widest-ever release for the studio.

Buoyed by tracking that shows strong interest among a core male aud for the fifth pic in Warner’s 16-year-old “Batman” franchise, distrib prexy Dan Fellman predicted, “This is the one where we’re going to see an uptick at the box office.”

Industry expectations are for “Begins” — helmed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale as the masked avenger — to post the biggest opening of the franchise. That record is held by “Batman Forever,” which opened 10 years ago, nearly to the day, with $52.8 million.

Unlike with that pic, starring Val Kilmer, Warners is bowing “Batman Begins” on a Wednesday. Decision was spurred by the wide global day-and-date pattern, Fellman said. If the pic equals or beats the three-day numbers for “Forever,” observers estimate it could rack up an additional $15 million or so before the weekend for a five-day total around $70 million.

To attain blockbuster status, however, “Begins” is going to have to widen its appeal beyond the adult male aud that is currently showing the most interest.

Tracking shows that males who say the film is their first-choice title this weekend outnumber females more than 2-1. Interest is strongest in the 18-34 range, the crowd that also tends to have the strongest affinity for the comic properties “Begins” is based on.

Fellman said he expected the gender gap to close over the weekend. “I think it will turn into a date movie,” he said, “and the good reviews will bring in a broader audience as well.”

Midweek openings are typically used to build word of mouth in advance of the weekend. But in this case, it was the international release strategy that moved “Begins” to a Wednesday bow.

“Internationally, some territories historically prefer Wednesday openings,” he said. “We felt we’ve had such great support from the fans that we did not want to have it open somewhere else before the U.S.”

The Caped Crusader will face little new competition over the weekend. Frame’s only other new title is Universal’s “The Perfect Man,” a mother-daughter pic starring Hilary Duff and Heather Locklear. U intentionally counterprogrammed the pic for femme fans who aren’t interested in the Dark Knight.

Despite its action plot, last week’s B.O. champ “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” was fueled by women, who, according to 20th Century Fox’s exit polls, made up slightly more than half the aud.

A strong second-week “Smith” perf combined with “Batman” could finally put to rest the 16-week streak of tepid weekends. Over the equivalent frame last year, “DodgeBall” was a surprise hit, opening with $30 million over “The Terminal,” which debuted to $19 million. Total biz for the weekend was $136.8 million, a sum within reach this weekend.

If the streak does continue, 17 straight down weeks will tie the record as the longest since Nielsen EDI started keeping stats in 1982.

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