Movie magic and marketing shoot Batman to record

July 23rd, 2008 - 9:25 am ICT by IANS  

By Andy Goldberg
Los Angeles, July 23 (DPA) “The Dark Knight”, the new Batman film based on a comic book hero invented 70 years ago, has powered the US box office to a new record and proved Hollywood’s uncanny ability to continually repackage old stories into treats that audiences find irresistible. So much for the advent of the Internet, the digital video recorder and YouTube making cinemas obsolete.

Over a single weekend “The Dark Knight” earned $158.3 million as US audiences flocked to the dark tale of a caped crusader who saves Gotham City from the evil machinations of his arch nemesis, the Joker.

“This is really a watershed event,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracking firm Media by Numbers.

“Not only is it the biggest opening weekend of all time, it helped make this the biggest overall movie weekend of all time.

“The only thing that remains to be seen is how many other records it’s going to break.”

Turns out that for all the myriad electronic distractions available to modern audiences, there is nothing they like better than to huddle in a closed dark room with hundreds of strangers to observe the make-believe feats of a crime-fighting idol.

Especially if that idol is a superhero wearing a mask and a body-hugging spandex uniform, and exhibits some of the frailties like insecurity and self doubt most of us lesser mortals have to deal with on a daily basis.

That’s the formula that enabled Tobey Maguire’s “Spiderman” to set the previous box office records. But “The Dark Knight” was not to be outdone.

From the start, director Christopher Nolan understood that a superhero can only be as good as his evil counterpart, and the role of the Joker was hyped up even more than that of Batman himself.

The casting of the intense Heath Ledger in that role was without doubt a brilliant move, and Warner Bros was raving about his performance even before the young Australian died from an accidental overdose in January.

Posthumous interest in Ledger’s performance was huge, and though Warner Bros was careful never to appear to take advantage of any ghoulish attention, Ledger’s appearance in the movie’s trailers was enough to spark a ticket buying frenzy.

Cinemas reported that online tickets for screenings were selling out as soon as they became available. On Internet auction site eBay some tickets were selling for $80. Many theatres ordered extra prints and expanded the number of screenings.

The bets paid off at midnight Friday as the first screenings set off record-breaking ticket sales, that culminated Sunday night in the most lucrative weekend ever for the US film industry - $253 million - not counting the popcorn and soda sales.

But not even a superbly crafted superhero can manage everything on his own. Batman usually has Robin at his side, but this time he had help from another less-than-youthful sidekick, the veteran Swedish pop group Abba.

“Mamma Mia”, a musical based on the group’s greatest hits, earned more than $26 million at the box office for the best opening weekend ever by a musical.

Add to the mix, a bunch of good movies with impressive staying power - from “Hancock” to “Hellboy 2″ and from “WALL-E” to “Kung Fu Panda”, and all the ingredients were there for a Hollywood midsummer dream.

“I’ve been in this business for 41 years, and this is the kind of weekend you love,” said Nikki Rocco of Universal Studios, which made “Mamma Mia”. “It shows that if you build it, they will come.”

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