Rarified Air

I’m going to break a bit from my monthly previews and recaps to talk about some box office specifics. A lot of numbers follow, but we’re looking at some awesome numbers.

If you’ve been following entertainment news at all over the past few days, you probably know that The Dark Knight is huge. It’s historically huge, earning $18.5 million in Friday midnight shows, over $67 million over the entire Friday, and a massive $158 million for its opening weekend.

These are all record breaking numbers. Bigger than Revenge of the Sith for the midnight shows and bigger than Spidey 3 for the opening day and weekend totals. Batman’s also gotten the record for biggest Sunday, widest release (in terms of theaters, not screens), and highest per-screen average for an ultra-wide release. (For wide releases, the record still belongs to the greatest musical talent of all time, Hannah Montana. But her film only hit 600 screens, not 4,366.)

With this performance, The Dark Night has blown away just about every weekend prediction. The stock for the film has rose steadily over time. My early summer prediction of $85 million seemed a bit bullish at the time, but was laughable by the beginning of July. The excellent ad campaign, curiosity due to Heath Ledger’s Death, and stellar performance from heroic rival Iron Man (which gives a good barometer for expectated response) were coming together to create a perfect storm of audience excitement. As such, the predictions rose from the $90s to the low $100s to the $130s up until about a week before the performance.

Despite this (which was putting Batman in the running with Jack Sparrow for the second biggest opening of all time) there were two strong undercurrents of thought. The first was that Spidey’s record was safe: Batman’s considerably darker, DC heroes don’t open as big, the competition is much more fierce in July than early May. At the same time, Warner Bros. was publically stating that they expected ONLY about $90-100m.

I believe the high water prediction was somewhere in the mid $140s, within spitting distance of Spiderman 3, but still shy.

When Friday’s numbers hit, all bets were off. The $67 million was a good $8m beyond Spidey’s Friday, and even a large drop on Saturday would keep it in the running. For large opening films, especially sequels, a poor weekend multiplier (ratio of Friday to the whole weekend) is somewhat expected. There’s a lot of demand to get there and see the film opening day, and as such the ratio will be very low because after the Friday, demand decreases a big way. Even so, Spidey 3 had a large drop and with the extra $8m, Batman could take a bigger drop and still come out ahead.

As it happened, there was a large drop on Saturday, to $47 million. That $20m drop is huge, almost 30%, and it led to some speculation that, despite the big Friday, Batman wouldn’t even stick around enough to even take the weekend total. That would be very bad news for Warner Bros. They played it conservatively, and gave an early weekend estimate of $151-1533m, just barely ahead of Spidey 3. A bit later, they estimated $155m, but rival studios were suspicious. WB had only estimated a drop of about 20% on Sunday, which seemed small, especially in light of the 30% on Saturday.

However, on Monday, the weekend figures hit the final numbers, and the weekend haul came in at $158m, a clear jump up from Spidey. Sunday’s figure was $43m, a mere 8% drop from Saturday.

So what happened here? Why the big drop from Friday to Saturday, but the small one from Sunday? Well first is that unlike many huge sequels, the critical response from both the media and audiences has been overwhelmingly positive. While it’s probably a close toss-up in the end, The Dark Knight is at least on par with Iron Man in terms of percieved quality. Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker is consistently cited as a standout point and has already garnered some Oscar buzz.

Second is that, counter-intuitively, it seems the market wasn’t saturated. So many people wanted to see this film, that even with 4300 screens they couldn’t find a place to sit. If they’re stuck trying to find a place on Friday or Saturday, they wait until Sunday.

But wait, wasn’t Friday still 20m bigger than Saturday? Why wasn’t Saturday huge and Sunday small if there was that much extra money in the making.

Consider the Midnight shows. Theaters did a massive number of showings early on Friday which accounted for over $18 million of that day’s business. A number also scheduled 3am (and 6am and 9am) shows to try and meet demand that first day. While a number probably did shows for Midnight Saturday and Midnight Sunday, they would be less inclined to keep things running 24 hours a day for three straight days. Hence, there were less showings, and less chances for people to get in. While it’s not a perfect fit, remove the midnight haul from Friday’s take and you’ve got about $49m. Now the drop to Saturday is miniscule and the small drop to Sunday doesn’t seem so strange.

After $158 million in three days, it sat a mere $42m from the vaunted $200m barrier. The big question was how much it would drop in the weekdays and thus how long it would take to cross that point. For mid-summer films, a drop of about 50% from Sunday to Monday is about normal, especially if the Sunday is large. But the subsequent weekdays will probably see consistent drops of about 10% or so. Demand is high for the weekend and tails off somewhat rapidly from there. It’s for this reason that almost all huge-opening films see extremely large drops in the second weekend, even if they’re well-received. There’s a bit of a limit to how much business these things can retain when you’re opening over the century mark.

Speculation follows: If Monday was $21m, it would sit at $179m after four days and probably in the upper $190s after day five. It would fairly easily pass $200m in six. Over the course of the week, we could get a good idea of what it would haul in weekend two. If it dropped, say, to $14m on Thursday, it would probably be close to $225-$230m for the first week, and absolutely astounding haul, but it probably wouldn’t be looking at much more than $60m for the second weekend. Still spectacular, but probably indicative that it’s going to drop fairly fast, so after weekend three it would be below $30m and around half that for weekend 4. A track record like that would see The Dark Knight cruising past $400m, but probably petering out somewhere in the realm of Pirates 2 ($423m).

However, we’ve got an actual number for Monday, and it’s amazing: almost $24.5m. This puts the total haul in four days at almost $183m, and it’s just $17m shy of $200m. It needs a drop of 30% on Tuesday to FAIL to get to the double century in five days. This is almost impossible. Its drop on Sunday and Monday are the lowest in the top ten. Given how much distance is between it and the number 2 film (Mamma Mia! which, to be perfectly fair, is doing wonderfully) this is amazing.

If it keeps with the trend of films of this size, it could see drops of 10-15% for each of the next few days, which means it could earn about $22m or more on Tuesday. Doing that could put it in shooting distance of meeting the entire run of Batman Begins… in five days. That was a spectacularly received film that did very, very good business, and The Dark Knight is making it look like a joke.

In fact, it’s making all of its Batman compatriots look like jokes. It surged passed the entire gross of Batman and Robin in two days. It passed Batman Returns in on Monday and ended up within 2 million of Batman Forever. Both of those films at one time had the opening weekend record. And at its current pace, it should pass Batman, the current highest grossing film in the franchise, sometime next weekend.

The speed that The Dark Knight is accomplishing these records cannot be understated. The current speediest grossing film is Pirates 2, which reached $200m in 8 days and $300m in 16. The Dark Knight will hit the first mark in 5 days and the second in 10 or 11. The current record holder for $400m is Shrek 2, which accomplished that feat in a stunning 43 days (Pirates 2 took 45.) With the way things currently look, a bullish prediction would have Batman crossing the quadruple century in under a month. It’s all but assured of knocking Star Wars Episode 1 and its $431m gross out of the top 5 of all time.

But the big question, which is starting to float, is the big T. Does Batman have what it takes to beat Titanic? Or, more realistically, does it even have a chance?

To answer this, we really need to understand how big that $600m gross really is. It is huge. The second place film of all time is Star Wars, which has just $460m. That $140m gap means you could add the grosses for any of the following films to Star Wars and not equal Titanic: Click, Anger Management, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the first one), Live Free or Die Hard, Superman, The Rock, The Departed, Minority Report, and so on. All of these films were regarded as strong box office contenders, which did some spectacular business. In the case of TMNT, it was the highest grossing film from its studio (New Line) until the release of Fellowship of the Ring. The Departed is far and away the highest grossing film of Martin Scorscese’s career. And Adam Sandler is one of the most consistently successful actors in history. Yet none of these films can make Star Wars match Titanic.

Here’s a story. In 2001, when Harry Potter shattered the opening weekend record with its $90m opening, it led to speculation that it might beat Titanic. In a conversation about this possibility, someone said it was all but guaranteed. After all, Harry Potter had this huge synergy across all demographics and was a huge cultural phenomenon. Plus it had an extremely strong holiday for its follow-up weekend (Thanksgiving) and was a really good movie. (The last was alleged by many fans of the series.)

Ultimately, Harry Potter was an extremely strong film, becoming the highest grossing of the year, but its final tally of $317m was barely more than half of Titanic’s final tally.

Of course, Harry Potter isn’t alone in that. Subsequent record weekend holders Spiderman and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest have also had such talk abound, as have Shrek 2, Star Wars Episode III and (before Harry Potter) Star Wars Episode I. All of these films have done stellar business, earning the most of their release year, but none have gotten even 75% of the total business that Titanic has.

If it isn’t clear, $600m is huge. And as big as the response for The Dark Knight has been, it probably doesn’t have the ability to top Titanic. But it’s not impossible to assume. If it earns $70m in weekend 2, $40m in weekend 3 and $25m in weekend 4, it will probably finish up at least on par with Star Wars’ $460m and could go somewhat more. But to get to $600m, it would need a historically strong hold. Better than Shrek 2 had in its second weekend ($72m, with the whole Memorial Day Holiday pulling in over $90m). It would probably need to see at least $90m for the three days to have a shot. And even then, it would need similarly strong holds in future weeks.

And as strong as it is right now, eventually audiences are likely to tire and look to other films. The third Mummy film will take some business. There’s another Star Wars film next month. And for people who aren’t strongly interested in the dark and brooding nature of The Dark Knight, they will be sidetracked by numerous comedies.

Still, when looking at the question of where The Dark Knight could end up (and Titanic isn’t outside the realm of possibility, but it’s rather unlikely) it is probably more important to consider where it is likely to end up.

Above $400m, certainly, and even $450m isn’t even three times its immense opening weekend. I would give it 2-1 odds of crossing the $500m mark. It would be just the second film in history to do that. Whatever the case, it’s certainly a run worth acclaim.

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