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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Overwhelmingly positive early reviews and buzz on Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker are producing some potentially batty forecasts for "The Dark Knight," which opens in North American theaters on Friday.
Yet there's just no denying that it will enjoy an impressive bow, likely in the low-$100 million range for the weekend.
Director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale reunite for the follow-up to 2005's "Batman Begins." That film opened on a Wednesday in mid-June, making $72.9 million during its first five days, of which $48.7 million came during the three-day weekend. It ended up with $205.3 million, the second-best performer in the "Batman" franchise after the original "Batman" in 1989 ($251.2 million).
But a couple of other comic book films might offer more meaningful metrics for the Caped Crusader's impending performance.
The smart money has "Dark Knight" debuting somewhere south of "Spider-Man 3" -- which unspooled to a record $151.1 million in May 2007 -- and north of "Iron Man," which opened in May this year with $102.1 million. The "Iron Man" tally included about $3.5 million from previews.
Warner Bros. hasn't offered previews on "Dark Knight," but exhibitors have gotten creative with their Friday showtimes. In addition to thousands of venues scheduling 12:01 a.m. showtimes, scores of theaters have programmed the Batman film for 6 a.m. Friday slots and the like.
Warners staged a Monday premiere of the film in New York -- inspiration for the comic book's Gotham City setting -- and another one Wednesday in Chicago, where much of the film was shot.
The film's more than 4,366 domestic playdates is a record, surpassing the 4,362 theaters for May 2007's bow of "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End." Double- and triple-screening at many venues means "Dark Knight" will play on 9,200 screens in the U.S. and Canada.
Its engagements include 94 Imax venues -- Nolan shot long segments using Imax-format cameras -- and most of those giant-screen auditoriums were sold out by midweek. A Warners exec estimated that Imax presales totaled $3.5 million, with advance ticketing for other venues adding considerably to that total.
"The Dark Knight" also bows in more than a dozen foreign markets this weekend, but some of the bigger territories won't get the film until August because of calendar-driven marketing considerations. "Dark Knight" rang up a big first-day estimate of almost $2.3 million Wednesday in Australia, where the territory's usual Thursday bow was moved up one day to take advantage of a final week of school holidays.
Still, three factors dim prospects for "Dark Knight" just a tad.
The first is its running time, which like "Batman Begins" is almost 2-1/2 hours. That's a long movie to program multiple times over the course of the day, crack-of-dawn showtimes notwithstanding.
Then there's the question of whether Batman can ever fly as high as, say, Spidey. When a franchise's best-grossing film is still the 19-year-old original, perhaps there is an inherent limit to its prospective audience.
Finally, this weekend isn't completely free from competition, though the other two wide openers are fairly obvious examples of counterprogramming, targeting demos less likely to gravitate to "Dark Knight."
Universal opens its big-screen adaptation of the ABBA-inflected musical "Mamma Mia!" on Friday, and prerelease tracking is strong with women of all ages. Industryites look for something around $25 million. Also, Fox will unspool its animated family comedy "Space Chimps," which looks likely to chip in $8 million-$10 million.