As The Dark Knight shatters one box-office record after another -- Best opening weekend! Fastest to $300 million! Most successful flying-mammal-themed sequel! -- some people have begun to speculate that it might eventually topple the all-time B.O. champion, Titanic, from its lofty perch.
At first glance, this seems like a reasonable possibility. Titanic made $600 million, and The Dark Knight has already grossed $400 million, or two-thirds of that, in just 18 days of release. Surely another few weeks is all it needs to haul in the rest and set a new all-time record!
Unfortunately, it's not going to happen. Believe me, I would love to see The Dark Knight do the disappearing-pencil trick on Titanic, but it just isn't in the cards.
Titanic was released 10 1/2 years ago, in December 1997, but the movie industry has changed dramatically since then. In those days, a movie could earn its millions over the course of many weeks. That suited theater owners, who get a larger cut of ticket sales after a film's first two weeks, as well as the studios, who were happy to let word-of-mouth keep a film alive for as long as it took. Even a movie like Mouse Hunt, which opened the same day as Titanic and had a lifetime gross of just $61 million, was still in theaters seven months later.
But there's been a major shift in philosophy since then. Studios (and audiences) are impatient now, and the focus is on the opening weekend. It's not uncommon for a blockbuster to make 30% of its total gross in those first three days alone. Titanic's $28 million opening weekend constituted less than 5% of its total.
Because of this front-loading, movies don't stay in theaters very long. Look at the top earners of 2007: Nothing that grossed over $100 million played for longer than six months, and most of them were out of theaters within four. The year's champ, Spider-Man 3, opened May 4 and closed Aug. 19. The new strategy is to open a film on as many screens as possible, make a shload of money the first couple weeks, then get it out on DVD while people are still interested. You gotta move fast before the Next Big Thing comes along!
Titanic was the #1 film 15 weekends in a row. The longest anything has stayed in the top spot since then is five weeks (The Sixth Sense). Heck, some films are already on DVD 15 weeks after they open. It's especially hard to dominate during the summer, when there's another blockbuster coming out every week. Titanic had very little serious competition for most of its run, which was in the icky early months of 1998.
All of this is a way of saying that The Dark Knight's progress so far is typical. The numbers are higher, but the basic pattern is normal: open huge, then fall off quickly and steadily. The film has been #1 for three weekends in a row, but each week sees a 50% decrease: $158 million, then $75 million, then $43 million. That's common. If the pattern continues, it will make around $20 million this weekend, lose the top spot to Pineapple Express, and continue to diminish for another seven or eight weeks before leaving theaters altogether.
The Dark Knight currently stands at around $400 million, and it's going to top out at around $450 million. Maybe it'll pass the #2 record holder, Star Wars, which made $460 million (including re-releases). But there's no way it overtakes Titanic. The movie industry simply isn't set up that way anymore.
Let us not forget, too, that Titanic was fueled by teenage girls seeing it again and again and again. Movie geeks can be passionate and devoted, and The Dark Knight is surely seeing a lot of repeat business. But geeks got nothin' on teenage girls when it comes to obsessing over a movie that hits all the right emotional buttons.
So what will it take to dethrone the current King of the World? Inflation. No film will gross more than $600 million domestically for at least another five years -- and when it happens, it will be because ticket prices have gone up sufficiently. That's how the movie biz operates in the rushed, impatient 21st century.
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Eric D. Snider would be happy to make even $1 million in one weekend.