Can ‘Knight’ be box office’s best?

'Titanic's' terrific take tough to top

Already, there’s talk of whether “The Dark Knight” can sink “Titanic” and become the top-grossing film of all time in North America.

It’s a tricky, and even dubious, comparison. “Titanic,” which collected $600.8 million in total ticket sales, played in theaters for nine months after opening at Christmas — an eternity by today’s standards. Pic stayed at No. 1 for 15 weeks, seeing only minimal declines and, in some cases, gains.

Warner Bros.’ “Dark Knight” is making history, but in an entirely different way. In less than two weeks, it has rewritten the rules about just how big a summer superhero tentpole can be, both in terms of its opening and ongoing playability.

“Dark Knight” may not be able to surpass “Titanic,” but it has every chance of becoming the No. 2 grossing film domestically, besting the original “Star Wars,” which grossed $461 million, including re-releases. “Shrek 2” holds the No. 3 spot at $436.7 million.

Through Monday, its 11th day in release, “Dark Knight” hit a cume of $324.3 million. There’s a good chance that it will get to $400 million by early next week. Many believe the Batman sequel will ultimately jump the $500 million mark at the domestic B.O.

“You can’t compare this movie to ‘Titanic.’ That was a different time, and a different genre,” said Warners president of distribution Dan Fellman. “Look, at the end of the day, there’s never been another movie like this that has done $500 million in business. That’s a gross that will be remembered for eternity.”

While “Dark Knight” and “Titanic” are difficult to compare, Universal’s Meryl Streep starrer “Mamma Mia!” is mirroring the performance of female-skewing hits “Hairspray” and “The Devil Wears Prada.”

“Mamma Mia!” is a musical like “Hairspray, and toplines Streep, as did “Prada.”

Combined, the trio of pics — along with this summer’s hit “Sex and the City” — provide irrefutable evidence that programming summer movies for women and girls can pay off bigtime, and such pics can even cross over. “Prada” ended up attracting men and older men in particular, likely because of Streep’s performance. There’s anecdotal evidence that “Mamma Mia!” is doing the same.

Women-pleasing films often hold well, and “Mamma Mia!” is no exception. Over the weekend, “Mamma Mia!” dipped only 36% to $17.7 million.

Cume of $62.6 million is ahead of the $59.6 million earned by “Hairspray” in its first 10 days last summer and just behind the $63.1 million taken by “The Devil Wears Prada” in its first 10 days two summers ago. “Prada” went on to cume $124.7 million domestically, while “Hairspray” cumed $118.9 million. (“Sex and the City,” released earlier this summer, has grossed $150.9 million to date.)

“People are embracing ‘Mamma Mia!’ as one of the most entertaining films out there,” Universal prexy of distribution Nikki Rocco said.

Studios don’t necessarily track demos after opening weekend, so there’s no hard numbers to show how audience makeup is changing for both “Mamma Mia!” and “Dark Knight,” although it’s clear to Warners that “Dark Knight” is getting a lot of repeat business.

Considering “Dark Knight’s” mammoth opening of $158.4 million, its second-weekend decline of only 53% was considered golden.

In recent times, other superhero pics have seen greater declines in their second sessions. Film also has seen boffo weekday business, including on its second Monday, when it earned $10.5 million.

“Dark Knight” and “Titanic” took entirely different routes in their first two weekends. “Titanic” made just $28.6 million when opening over the weekend of Dec. 19, 1997. The next weekend, it saw a 24% gain, grossing $35.4 million.

Ultimately, “Dark Knight” may not be able to attract as broad an aud as “Titanic” did.

Also, the movie biz has changed dramatically since “Titanic.” Because of an overcrowded pipeline, studios — anticipating steep drop-offs — look for their holiday and summer tentpoles to score giant openings.

Just as “Dark Knight” overperformed in its opening, it’s also bucked the trend in doing better ongoing business than expected.