How Batman Broke the Record

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Alfred Giancarli / ATLASPRESS

Batman fans outside a New York City theater on July 17

Holy gargantuan grosses, Batman! Hollywood has just ridden to the most lucrative moviegoing weekend in film history on the cape of The Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan's gritty Batman sequel raked in $155 million between Friday and Sunday, outselling the previous top weekend grosser, 2007's Spider-Man 3, by more than $4 million and driving the movie business to a record $253 million weekend.

The Dark Knight's unprecedented box-office might is "mind-boggling for us," says Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. Pictures. (TIME and Warner Bros. are both subsidiaries of Time Warner.) The film benefited from a unique mix of factors beyond the usual superhero movie hype, including a buzzed-about performance by the late Heath Ledger as the Joker, perfectly pitched marketing, agile distribution and gas prices that have made a night at the movies an attractive alternative to a summer road trip. It also helps that The Dark Knight, as most critics and audiences attest, is a very good film.

As early as last summer, months before Ledger's sudden death in January, Warner Bros. sensed that Nolan was filming something that might transcend mere fanboy fodder. With Batman Begins, in 2005, the director successfully rebooted the troubled franchise, but this time around his decision to go darker — and The Dark Knight is as mordant a superhero movie as there has ever been — dovetailed with the popular mood. "We saw the dailies coming in and we knew we had an incredible movie," says Fellman. Though Christian Bale's Batman is The Dark Knight's star, it was Ledger's knife-wielding anarchist around whom the studio built an early viral marketing campaign, featuring the villain prominently in posters, trailers and on the web site

After Ledger's death, curiosity about his performance — not always driven by the best of impulses — only grew. "It added to a certain mystique about the film," says Steve Mason, box-office analyst at While Warner Bros. was anxious about appearing to capitalize on interest in Ledger's death as The Dark Knight's release date approached, it resumed showcasing Ledger in trailers. "The performance is so good, had they not highlighted it, it would have been a mistake," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office analysis firm Media By Numbers. In the end, Fellman says, "[Ledger] certainly is part of our great success."

In the weeks before opening, Bat-ticipation was ratcheted so high that Dark Knight screenings were selling out online as fast as theaters could add them. The AMC South Barrington in Chicago planned to show the movie on six screens and ended up ordering more prints in order to play it on 18. A planned Friday midnight showing at Hollywood's Cinerama Dome sold out so quickly, its adjoining theater, the ArcLight, added 13 midnight screenings. Those midnight shows broke another record, earning $18.5 million, to beat out Star Wars, Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith's 2005 record of $16.9 million. And those numbers don't include the hardy fans who stayed up for the 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. shows. Tickets to see the film on giant IMAX screens, which accounted for a record $6 million of the weekend's gross, also went fast, inspiring some ticket-holders to scalp them on eBay for as much as $80 a pop.

When it came to breaking box-office records, Batman wasn't flying solo. Universal's Mamma Mia! earned $27.6 million to snare the best opening for a musical, narrowly beating out last summer's Hairspray and helping propel the record weekend sales across the industry.

As for The Dark Knight, its future looks bright. Most blockbusters are built on first-weekend hype that quickly falls off as new films arrive in theaters, but audiences are spreading good word of mouth and, in some cases, returning to see the film on IMAX screens. Whether there'll be enough returns to put The Dark Knight in all-time box-office territory remains to be seen. But Hollywood appears to have its box-office superhero for 2008.