Comic hero, comely couple rule B.O.

Auds welcomed the Bat back to screens with strong, if not dazzling, returns.

Warner Bros. reported “Batman Begins,” the first installment in the Caped Crusader franchise in eight years, grossed $46.9 million over the weekend, accumulating $71.1 million since its Wednesday launch.

The previous four “Batman” films all bowed on Fridays, but comparing just the three-day spans, “Begins” is better than 1997’s “Batman & Robin’s” $42.9 million bow, though lower than the $52.8 million opening of “Batman Forever” in 1995. (It’s also worth noting the average ticket price has increased by more than 40% in the last decade.)

Warners launched “Batman” at 3,718 theaters on Wednesday and expanded to 3,858 locations over the three-day span.

Frame’s only other new entrant, Universal’s “The Perfect Man,” posted mediocre figures, collecting $5.5 million from 2,087 venues, which put the Hilary Duff pic in the No. 7 spot.

While the Dark Knight attracted a mostly male aud, Fox’s femme-driven actioner “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” held well at $27.3 million in its second weekend, a moderate 46% dip. Perf brings cume on the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie title to $98 million.

Behind it in the No. 3 spot was DreamWorks toon “Madagascar,” which fetched $11.1 million in its fourth weekend, pushing its cume to $147.2 million.

In the fourth spot was Fox’s “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” with $9.7 million, bringing cume on the sci-fi saga finale to $348 million.

Paramount’s “The Longest Yard” rounded out the top five, with a $8 million showing in its fourth frame. Adam Sandler football remake has cumed $131.9 million.

Franchise revival?

Warners hopes “Begins,” which reportedly carried a budget of more than $150 million, will relaunch its lucrative “Batman” franchise. Together, the first four films based on the DC Comics character grossed $1.25 billion worldwide. And, as the end of “Begins” suggests, helmer Chris Nolan and star Christian Bale are already pondering a sixth installment.

But whether that gets under way largely depends on how the pic plays over the next few weeks. In 2003, Universal had similar aspirations for “Hulk,” but after it dropped 70% off its $62 million opening in its second weekend, sequel plans were shelved.

Later that summer, Disney opened “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” to $70.6 million in its first five days — a nearly identical total to “Batman Begins.” But when the pic exercised some incredibly long legs — it was in the top 10 for 11 weeks, never dropping more than 32% a frame — and cumed $305 million, Disney put two sequels into production back-to-back

So, with so much riding on the public perception of “Begins” and in an era where success or failure at the box office is followed by moviegoers and industry execs alike, Warners labored to accentuate the positive in the “Batman” opening.

“It’s a very impressive number,” said Warners distrib chief Dan Fellman. “I’m sure you’ll see sequels coming with Christian and Chris.”

Among the reasons for optimism, Fellman said: “It’s rare when you have a tentpole that’s so well reviewed. The exit surveys continued to increase through the weekend and deliver excellent (ratings) and definite recommends from the day we opened.”

He added that many schools on the East Coast will be closing this week, and “next weekend, while there are good family movies coming (“Bewitched” and “Herbie: Fully Loaded” both bow), they’re not our audience.

Indeed, the demographics on “Begins” showed that adult males made up the biggest portion of the aud: 57% were male, and 56% were over age 25.

But Fellman pointed out that the gender gap closed significantly through the frame from the 66% male aud that turned out for the Wednesday bow.

The big picture

While this frame was widely expected to finally snap the streak of down weekends, Nielsen EDI’s estimate of $133 million in total biz is down 2.6% from last weekend’s $136.8 million frame.

The “Batman Begins” domestic bow could contribute to the 17th straight weekend in which the frame’s total biz trailed last year’s figures. If so, this year’s weak streak would shares the record with 1985 for the longest series of down weekends. (The streak could snap when studios issue their actual weekend box office tallies today.)

For the year, 2005’s box office total of $3.841 billion is running 6.6% behind 2004 through this point.

Also disconcerting is the summer tally, which at $1.342 billion, is 8.1% lower than grosses over the first seven weekends of the season last year, a deficit of $118 million. However, the gap continues to narrow. After the previous weekend, the summer season was off 2004 by 9.9% or $124 million.

In the limited arena, IFC Films inaugurated its IFC Film Center, in Gotham, with a strong debut for “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” which grossed $28,114. Pic picks up L.A. and Chicago bookings this Friday and the rest of the top 10 markets over the July 4th weekend.

Sony Pictures Classics’ “Heights” started with $57,943 from its first seven screens, averaging $8,278 per engagement.

Also opening was Focus Features’ “My Summer of Love,” which found $90,554 from 17 screens in its first week, for an average of $5,327 per.

Expanding ‘Castle’

Disney expanded Hayao Miyazaki toon “Howl’s Moving Castle” to 202 screens this weekend and saw grosses of $802,000, giving it an average of $3,970 per screen. Toon now has a cume of $1.42 million.

Also in its second week, Thinkfilm’s “5×2″ grossed $15,040 off three screens, raising its cume to $39,729.

Paramount Classics’ “Apres vous” found $93,000 in its third week for a running total of $212,000. Playing 29 dates, it averaged $3,207 per screen. Label’s doc “Mad Hot Ballroom,” in is sixth frame, grossed $410,000 off of 154, for an average of $2,662, which brings its cume to $2.32 million.

Roadside Attractions’ “Ladies in Lavender,” now in its eighth week of release, grossed a steady $281,574 from 96 screens, averaging $2,933 per theater, and bringing its cume to $2.98 million.

Sony Classics’ “Saving Face” grossed $120,298 in its fifth week to push cume to $478,473. It averaged $2,734 per screen on its 44-venue run.

Tartan and TLA’s “Mysterious Skin,” in its seventh week, grossed $35,278 from 14 screens, bringing its cume to $335,922. It averaged $2,520 per screen.

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