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Studios eye box office record

Weekend has a shot at best-ever grosses

Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight” is poised to enter the record books as it opens today — and the weekend has a shot at being the best on record in overall grosses on the strength of the Batman sequel and Universal’s adaptation of stage musical “Mamma Mia!”

The record holder for best nonholiday weekend is the weekend of July 7-9, 2006, which brought in $218.4 million in total domestic box office grosses, led by the $131.5 million bow of Disney sequel “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”

Based on the enormity of tracking and advance ticket sales, “Dark Knight” has a shot at opening as high as “Dead Man’s Chest,” although anything over $100 million would be a big win. “Dead Man’s Chest” presently sports the second-best opening on record after that of “Spider-Man 3,” which nabbed $151.1 million over the May 4-6 weekend last year.

“Mamma Mia!” also boasts excellent tracking, and it should be able to match, or best, the $27 million opening of “Hairspray” on the same weekend last year.

Toon “Space Chimps,” the frame’s other new wide entry, probably won’t open to more than $10 million, but that’s still a boost to overall B.O. receipts. Pic, which debuts in 2,511 runs, was financed and produced by Starz Media, with 20th Century Fox distributing.

Also adding to the kitty will be several stalwart holdovers, including “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” “Hancock” and “Wall-E.”

No one could have predicted that the third weekend in July would turn out be such a behemoth. The big question: Just how much can the market expand?

Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed “Dark Knight” — as dark as its title suggests — should far outpace the opening of his “Batman Begins,” which debuted to $48.7 million in June 2006 on its way to cuming $205.3 million. At least part of the reason for the sequel’s added appeal is the performance of the late Heath Ledger, who plays the most ghoulish Joker yet.

Legendary Pictures, DC Comics and Charles Roven produced the pic.

“Mamma Mia!,” toplining Amanda Seyfried and Meryl Streep, is as upbeat as “Batman” is brooding.

Overseas, the film adaptation of the West End musical is already breaking records, having launched in several territories a week ahead of its domestic bow. Pic has so far taken in $41 million from only a dozen markets, shattering the stereotype that tuners don’t play well abroad. The U.K. has led the way with $21 million.

Brit stage director Phyllida Lloyd directed “Mamma Mia!,” which uses the songs by the popular Swedish band Abba. Set in Greece, the musical also stars Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard. Tom Hanks’ Playtone and Littlestar produced.

Warners is bowing “Dark Knight” in a record 4,366 theaters domestically. That’s a record number of playdates, although on some screens, “Dark Knight” may not play the full day. Nolan’s film clocks in at just over 2½ hours.

At the same time, Warners and theater owners are maximizing their returns by starting round-the-clock screenings at just after midnight.

Had “Dark Knight” opened in May, when there is far less competition, it might have opened to the same business “Spider-Man 3” did domestically.

Large-format exhib Imax is reporting that nearly all of its showings of “Dark Knight” are sold out across the country. (Nolan lensed major segments of the film using large-format cameras.) Online ticketing services Movie.com and Fandango say advance ticket sales for “Dark Knight” are some of the strongest they’ve ever seen.

Fandango chief operating officer Rick Butler is going so far as to say that Friday could be the biggest single day for ticket sales in his company’s history, as well as for the box office overall.

Historically, Batman hasn’t been the most popular comicbook superhero at the international box office, but “Dark Knight” is expected to reverse this trend. “Batman Begins” did the best of the bunch, grossing $166 overseas.

Just as “Dark Knight” is expected to do far bigger domestic business than “Batman Begins,” it’s also expected to do better overseas.

Pic has already launched impressively in Australia — Ledger’s homeland — with $4.45 million on Wednesday and Thursday as Warner opted to go a day earlier than usual to take advantage of some schools being on vacation. The first two days came in 26% ahead of “Hancock” and 90% above “Iron Man.”

Warners has opted for a more measured release pattern for the pic overseas, with day-and-date launches in only 20 markets, mostly in Asia and Latin America, with about 4,400 playdates. In addition to Australia, other major territories include Brazil, Hong Kong and Mexico.

“Dark Knight” is set for a major wave of European openings next weekend, including in the U.K., Italy, Belgium, Holland, Scandinavia and several Eastern European markets. But the studio’s waiting until August to open in Japan, South Korea, France, Spain and Germany.

Overseas biz has been super-charged during July, topped by “Hancock,” which has cuming well over $180 million in two weeks. The Will Smith vehicle will likely lead the chart again as it widens into Spain and Scandinavia.

Meanwhile, “Mamma Mia!” expands into Austria, Germany, Holland and Switzerland.

U’s widening “Wanted” into Belgium and France after an impressive early foreign run that’s banked $85 million. Russia’s racked up the top number with $25 million so far.

Other openers include “Hellboy II: the Golden Army” in Italy and Russia and “Meet Dave” in the U.K.

On the specialty side domestically, new offerings include UTV’s “Kismat Konnection,” which debuts in 64 runs; Indican’s “Legend of God’s Gun,” which bows in three runs; Third Rail’s “Lou Reed’s Berlin,” which opens in two theaters; Regent’s “On the Other Hand, Death,” opening in two theaters in L.A.; First Look’s “Transsiberian,” which opens in two theaters in New York; Anywhere’s “A Very British Gangster,” which plays in two theaters in Gotham and L.A.; Strand’s “Before I Forget,” bowing in one run; and IFC’s “Mad Detective,” which plays in one run in Gotham.

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