I’ve already given my two cents on how high The Dark Knight can fly on the quality side. (For Part I click here) Now, I will delve into the box office potential of the second installment of the rejuvenated Batman franchise.
Batman Begins didn’t exactly light the box office on fire on its opening weekend. Begins opened with $48.7 million in June of 2005, only slightly more than the $42.9 million launch from 1997’s Batman and Robin, the last in a series of films which had a much different style and less serious tone than this newer series. (Although the comparison is not entirely fair since Batman and Robin opened on the more traditional Friday, but Begins debuted on a Wednesday, a day that is never included in the weekend take.) Batman and Robin suffered from horrible word of mouth and finished with only $107.3 million giving it a horrible 2.5 multiplier (total box office gross divided by opening weekend). A 2.5 multiplier may not seem horrible by today’s standards, but that is mainly because the industry has been trending towards a more frontloaded pattern. Back in 1997, that sort of collapse was nearly unheard of.
Batman Begins, however, showed off some strong legs, finishing its box office run with $205.3 million. That gave it a very impressive 4.21 multiplier, extremely high nowadays for an action film. Still, that total is a far cry from the $330+ million that each film in the Spider-Man franchise, the most lucrative of all recent superhero movies, has generated. Begins, though, has been able to build up its fan base from those who watched it for the first time on DVD, which has been available for nearly three years. This gives The Dark Knight a huge box office advantage over its predecessor.
The success of a sequel largely depends on how many of the previous film’s cast members return. Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne / Batman, Michael Caine as Alfred, Batman’s butler, and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox all return to play their respective roles. Even Cillian Murphy returns to play Scarecrow, one of the villains. The only major actor/actress not returning is Katie Holmes who played Bruce’s girlfriend in Begins. The character is staying, but Holmes has been replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal, which in my opinion is good news. Director Christopher Nolan also returns, which is critical to keeping the darker tone intact.
The villains in Batman Begins were not among the more famous (or should I say infamous) in the Batman universe. However, The Dark Knight cast Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart to play two of the most popular villains in the comic world, The Joker and Two Face. This, of course, adds to the must-see status of the film. I still hate to even mention it, but this is Ledger’s last film, and judging by the trailers and what I’ve heard, it looks like he has gone out with a bang.
There are several benchmarks and records that The Dark Knight is looking to beat, or at least come respectively close to. The best opening weekend of the year is the $100.1 million launch from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull over the always lucrative Memorial Day frame. Unlike Crystal Skull and Batman Begins, Dark Knight opens on a Friday, which is an advantage when it comes to the official opening weekend. If a film opens midweek, the days preceding the first Friday are not included in the opening weekend. The best total for a film so far this year is Iron Man‘s $304.8 million and when it finally exits theaters it will probably have banked around $320 million.
While its uncommon for a sequel to more than double its predecessor’s opening weekend, it’s not unheard of. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Rush Hour 2, American Pie 2, and Shrek 2 are recent examples of summer sequels that have more than doubled (or even more than quadrupled in the case of Austin Powers) their predecessors, and in all of these cases the films only had two or three years for the originals to build up their audiences on DVD or VHS, about the same amount of time The Dark Knight has had. Batman Begins’ leggy run in theaters seems to indicate that the sequel will be a new member in this elite group. A $100 million opening for Dark Knight would be slightly more than double Batman Begins, but the industry is pointing to a number that is even higher.
Of the 10 films that have opened to more than $100 million on their opening weekend, nine of them are sequels. The only film on the list that isn’t a sequel happens to be a comic book movie, the first Spider-Man with a staggering $114.8 million bow from 2002, which was the biggest opening weekend at the time. Only three films have posted higher debuts since, including one of its sequels, current record holder Spider-Man 3 with a gargantuan $151.1 million opening last year. While the openings got bigger, each Spidey film has made slightly less in total than the last. Of all of the recent comic book franchises, only the X-Men films have shown substantial growth, in both the opening and the total, from one film to the next. The first X-Men is often credited with reviving the at-the-time waning superhero genre when it debuted to $54.5 million in 2000 on its way to a $157.3 million total. X2: X-Men United made its way to theaters in 2003, a year after Spider-Man made the superhero a part of pop culture again, and it debuted to $85.6 million en route to $214.9 total, a substantial increase over its predecessor. Even the mixed reactions to X-Men: The Last Stand didn’t put much a dent in that franchise with its $102.8 million bow and $234.4 million total two years ago.
Another factor that must be considered is the competition that The Dark Knight will face. This summer is full of superhero and comic book films. Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk have already launched. Will Smith’s latest juggernaut, Hancock, about a down and out superhero, opens just two weeks prior to The Dark Knight, but the Wednesday release date Hancock is taking suggests that film will have exhausted most of its audience before Knight begins its crusade into theaters. Hellboy II: The Golden Army opens just a week before Knight, but that film will play to a more cult audience and will likely not put a dent in the Caped Crusader’s latest pilgrimage.
Two other wide releases open opposite The Dark Knight on the same weekend, but they play to different and much narrower target audiences so they will be mainly a non-factor.
Ultimately, at this point, it looks like The Dark Knight will open to at least $100 million with a more likely opening in the $110-$130 million range and with even a slight chance of breaking Spider-Man 3‘s $151 million record. That points to a total of at least $300 million, even if there is bad word of mouth, and if the word of mouth is positive or even merely neutral, then $400+ million is certainly possible, making it only the 8th film to cross that milestone. $400 million would also likely be enough to become the highest grossing film of 2008.
Well, that about sums it up. The Dark Knight opens Friday, July 18.
Box office data source: the-numbers.com