Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ “The Dark Knight” rocketed the Batman film franchise into the superhero stratosphere as it nabbed the highest weekend opening ever in grossing an official $158.3 million — even more than Sunday’s estimate of $155.3 million.
Tally easily beats the $151.1 million opening of “Spider-Man 3” in May 2007. “Dark Knight” enjoyed a better-than-expected Sunday. Final figure of $158.3 million was released Monday morning.
The victory dance didn’t end there. The domestic box office racked up an unprecedented $250 million or more in ticket sales on the enormous strength of filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” and the $27.6 million debut of Universal’s femme-favored “Mamma Mia!,” making it the biggest three-day weekend ever in terms of total grosses.
Previous record weekend tally was $218.4 million, set in early July 2007 when “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” debuted to $135.6 million.
Warners estimates that “Dark Knight,” returning Christian Bale as DC Comics’ famed superhero Batman and playing in a record 4,366 theaters, could gross as much as $220 million in its first week. That’s more than the entire domestic gross of Nolan’s “Batman Begins,” which cumed $205 million domestically and $166 million overseas. “Dark Knight’s” added popularity is due in part to the death of Heath Ledger, who stars as the creepiest Joker yet.
No one was sure if the marketplace could expand to this degree considering how crowded the late-July marquee already was. Some believed that the “Spider-Man” three-quel was able to open to $151.1 million only because it was early May, and that “Dark Knight” — co-produced and co-financed by Legendary Pictures — would be relegated to a gross more in “Dead Man’s Chest” territory.
“Mamma Mia!” also made the records books in narrowly beating “Hairspray” to become the top opener for a musical. Opening the same weekend last year, “Hairspray” grossed $27.5 million in its debut. Starring Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried, “Mamma Mia!” proved the ideal counterprogramming to the dark and brooding “Batman” sequel.
Overseas, where it opened ahead of its domestic launch, “Mamma Mia!” is already a success, grossing $26.8 million in its second frame for a boffo cume of $72.6 million. Meanwhile, Warners is rolling out “Dark Knight” slowly abroad. Over the weekend, it grossed an impressive $40 million from only a handful of territories.
Domestically, the weekend was up a whopping 64% over the same frame last year and has all but closed a deficit to bring this summer in line with summer 2007.
At the same time, there were some trouble spots.
Starz Media toon “Space Chimps,” distributed by 20th Century Fox, hit only No. 7 in its bow, grossing an estimated $7.3 million from 2,511 runs. “Space Chimps” was outgunned by Disney-Pixar’s “Wall-E.” Pixar toon placed No. 6 in its fourth frame, declining just 48% to an estimated $9.8 million.
U’s “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” took a steep 71% dip in its second weekend, grossing an estimated $10 million from 3,212 to place No. 5. Cume is $56.4 million.
In its second weekend, New Regency and Fox’s Eddie Murphy ill-fated laffer “Meet Dave” fell off the top 10 list to No. 11. Comedy declined 69% to an estimated $1.6 million for a cume of $9.37 million.
Like “Wall-E,” Sony’s Will Smith starrer “Hancock” continued to please as it approached the $200 million mark domestically. Pic declined 56% in its third sesh to an estimated $14 million from 3,776 runs for a cume of $191.5 million.
New Line and Walden Media’s 3-D action-adventure “Journey to the Center of the Earth” came in No. 4 in its second sesh, declining a slim 43% to an estimated $11.9 million from 2,830 screens — 854 of those digital 3-D screens — for a cume of $43 million.
“Dark Knight’s” transformation into the event film of the summer confirms that Warners, DC Comics and Nolan have successfully relaunched a franchise that has seen several stops and starts. Before “Batman Begins,” studio made four other Batman pics to varying results, beginning with “Batman” in 1989.
“Lightning doesn’t strike often, but it did this time,” said Warners prexy of distribution Dan Fellman. “Chris Nolan took a franchise that was really finished, and he created an incredible film with ‘Batman Begins.’ He put together an outstanding cast in ‘Dark Knight,’ and Heath Ledger’s performance is mesmerizing.”
Film also stars Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine; Freeman and Caine also appeared in “Batman Begins.” Christopher and Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer penned the screenplay, while Charles Roven, Emma Thomas and Nolan produced.
“Dark Knight” earned a record-breaking $67.8 million on Friday alone. Of that, $18.5 million came from midnight shows, besting the previous midnight record set by Fox’s 2005 “Star Wars: Episode III — The Revenge of the Sith,” which grossed $16.9 million from 3,663 venues.
Estimates compiled by several competing studios showed “Dark Knight” coming in below $155 million for the weekend and much closer to the $151.1 million earned by “Spider-Man 3” on its opening weekend.
In terms of the breakdown by day, Warners estimates that “Dark Knight” earned $48 million on Saturday, a 30% drop from Friday, and will gross $39.4 million on Sunday. “Spider-Man 3” had a stronger Saturday, earning $51.3 million. Sunday’s “Dark Knight” take was $39.3 million.
Because it is the heart of summer, Fellman said “Dark Knight” has an advantage over “Spider-Man” in that more kids will go the movies on Sunday because they don’t have to wake up Monday morning and go to school.
“The pattern is different for our movie,” Fellman said.
“Dark Knight” also has the advantage of stellar reviews.
Film played to all auds but skewed slightly male, at 52%. Audience was evenly split in terms of age.
“Dark Knight’s” debut brought large-format exhib Imax its best opening weekend take ever. Of the film’s total grosses, $6.2 million came from 94 Imax theaters across the country. Nolan filmed several lengthy action segments with large-format cameras for Imax auds.
Film’s success also is a boost for Thomas Tull’s Warners-based Legendary Pictures, a slate financing and production company.
“Mamma Mia!,” based on the long-running West End musical, played heavily to women, who made up 75% of the audience. Roughly 64% of the audience was over age 25.
“To be part of this historic weekend and contribute to it the way we did is phenomenal,” Universal prexy of distribution Nikki Rocco said. “I’ve been in this business for 41 years, and this is the kind of weekend you love. It shows that if you build it, they will come.”
Film was helmed by Brit stage director Phyllida Lloyd and produced by Tom Hanks’ Playtone and Littlestar. Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard and Colin Firth also star.
Rocco said that musicals usually see a drop from Friday to Saturday, but that “Mamma Mia!” remained steady. She expects the film to have strong legs, just as “Hairspray” and summer comedy “The Devil Wears Prada” did.
Fox, noting that it was only the distributor on “Space Chimps,” didn’t have a demographic breakdown for the G-rated pic. But Fox senior VP of distribution Bert Livingston said it did land its intended aud of younger children.
“We didn’t expect it to do anymore,” Livingston said.
Still, “Space Chimps” is the second disappointment in a row for Fox.
Studio hopes to pick up the pace on Friday with the debut of “The X-Files: I Want to Believe,” which opens against Sony’s R-rated comedy “Step Brothers.”