Friday, July 20, 2012

Forecast: Can 'Dark Knight Rises' Top 'Avengers' Opening?

Christopher Nolan's Bat-trilogy concludes this weekend with The Dark Knight Rises, and audiences appear poised to rush out in unprecedented numbers to find out exactly how "The Legend Ends."

The Dark Knight Rises
is debuting at 4,404 locations, which is the second-widest release ever behind The Twilight Saga: Eclipse's 4,468 theaters. With over 70 minutes filmed using IMAX cameras, the movie will play at a record 332 IMAX locations, and it's a foregone conclusion that it sets a new record in that format. The bigger question is whether The Dark Knight Rises can steal the opening weekend record away from The Avengers, which established an insanely high bar when it debuted to $207.4 million in May.

If anyone can beat The Avengers, though, it's Batman, who is arguably the most popular character in American pop culture. 1989's Batman set the opening weekend record at the time with $40.5 million; that was eventually topped by Batman Returns ($45.7 million), which was then beat by Batman Forever ($52.8 million). By the time Batman and Robin opened in 1997, though, the pervading silliness had sullied the franchise, and the movie was a financial disappointment at $107.3 million total.

After an eight-year hiatus, Warner Bros. hired up-and-coming writer-director Christopher Nolan to reboot the franchise. Nolan's first installment, Batman Begins, opened slowly but went on to earn a very respectable $205.3 million. The movie was also extremely well-regarded—it has an 8.3 rating on IMDb—and found a very strong after-life on DVD and TV.

Three years later, sequel The Dark Knight pitted Batman against his most-famous foe, The Joker. The anticipation of seeing that conflict play out in Nolan's universe was only amplified by Heath Ledger's untimely death, and the movie went on to set a record with an incredible $158.4 million debut. It ultimately closed with $533.3 million; both the opening weekend record and the total have been passed twice in the years since, though that doesn't lessen the accomplishment. Aside from being financial successful, The Dark Knight is also one of the most widely-seen and widely-liked movies in recent memory: it ranks eight on IMDb's Top 250 list with an 8.9 rating from over 729,000 users.

While initial marketing for The Dark Knight Rises may have relied a little too much on past glories (the first teaser seemed to feature more old footage than new), the campaign eventually found its footing by focusing on a few key areas. First, and most importantly, it's clearly been conveyed that this is the final installment in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy ("The Legend Ends" has been plastered all over the material). Considering studios would prefer to milk a cash cow for as long as possible, this definitive ending is almost unheard-of for an original property. What makes it even more enticing is that audiences don't have the slightest idea how the story will end: in the case of Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, for example, moviegoers were generally aware that Anakin Skywalker was on his way to becoming Darth Vader.

There's an obvious void in this installment without Heath Ledger's Joker, so the second main tenant of the campaign has been an emphasis on the conflict between Batman and Bane. Many billboards position the two foes facing off against each other, and commercials and trailers tease plenty of physical and mental battles. A hero is only as strong as his villain, and in this case Warner Bros. has done a nice job raising a B-level villain up close to A-level status.

The final major selling point has been the inclusion of Catwoman, played by Anne Hathaway. The gritty saga has to this point been very male-oriented, and the only top-billed female in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight was whoever was playing Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes, Maggie Gyllenhaal). In order to connect with women, who aren't quite as enticed by all the comic book violence, the campaign has given plenty of exposure to Hathaway's sexy, strong character, and it should go a long way to convincing the fairer sex to give this a shot.

A popular debate over the past two months has been whether or not The Dark Knight Rises can top the record-setting $207.4 million Avengers debut. It's an uphill battle, for sure: The Avengers had a boost from 3D ticket pricing, and opened at a time when there wasn't really any competition. Additionally, The Dark Knight Rises has an insanely long runtime (164 minutes) which will prevent it from getting in as many showings per screen as The Avengers.

That being said, there are a handful of things working in favor of The Dark Knight Rises. First, the movie is guaranteed to have a much bigger midnight opening than The Avengers. Four years ago, before midnight movies had really taken off, The Dark Knight set a then-record with $18.5 million. The opportunity to be one of the first to see the conclusion has sparked ridiculous midnight demand among fanboys, and theaters are adding more and more showtimes to accommodate this demand. At 3,700 midnight locations, The Dark Knight Rises should earn at least $30 million, which gives it an early leg up on The Avengers ($18.7 million).

Also thanks to the proliferation of digital projection, theaters should be well-suited to handle the surge of opening weekend demand for The Dark Knight Rises. Yes, Ice Age: Continental Drift and to a lesser extent The Amazing Spider-Man will hold on to most of their screens, but other movies are going to get pushed aside to make room for Batman (at the Arclight theaters in Hollywood and Sherman Oaks, for example, the movie appears to be playing on at least six out of 14 screens this weekend). Tracking indicates that there's more pre-release interest in The Dark Knight Rises than in The Avengers, and if that gap is significant enough, then The Dark Knight Rises can overcome its ticket price disadvantage and claim the all-time opening weekend record.

Since the main selling point appears to be that it is the final installment, a good way to come up with a range for the opening weekend of The Dark Knight Rises is by looking back at other popular series finales. For its five-day opening, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King earned $124.1 million, which was a 22 percent improvement over The Two Towers. Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith jumped 44 percent over its predecessor with a $158.4 million four-day start, while Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was up 35 percent to $169.2 million over opening weekend. Based on these figures, The Dark Knight Rises should be in line for somewhere between $193 million and $228 million.
Thanks to an attention-grabbing campaign, the exorbitant pent-up demand, and the insane popularity of its predecessor, it's likely that the movie winds up on the higher end of this range, and barely beats The Avengers's $207.4 million record.

Weekend Forecast (July 20-22)
1. The Dark Knight Rises - $214.7 million (new record)
2. Ice Age 4 - $26.6 million (-43%)
3. The Amazing Spider-Man - $16.7 million (-51%)
4. Ted - $13.7 million (-39%)

Bar for Success
The Dark Knight's opening weekend theater average adjusts to approximately $40,000 in 2012 dollars. The Dark Knight Rises needs to match that figure, which translates to $175 million across its 4,404 locations.

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