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LOS ANGELES - The latest film in the “Batman” series, “The Dark Knight,” posted record box-office receipts over the weekend, but talk of repeat business could drive those numbers to astronomical levels.


“Dark Knight’s” $158.4 million in Friday-to-Sunday earnings drove the movie past the three-day record of $151.1 million earned by “Spider-Man 3” in early May 2007. Helped by round-the-clock showings, pre-release hype, strong critical reviews and the curiosity factor surrounding the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, the film is sure to win back at least the $180 million that Warner Bros. Pictures, a unit of Time Warner Inc., invested in the project.


But the film’s early numbers could multiply geometrically, as it appears that many movie-goers want to see the film again. A survey by online ticket seller Fandango Inc. says that 64 percent of audiences plan to pay for a repeat screening.


“It’s going to have legs. It’s going to continue to play,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media by Numbers. “People are willing to pay a premium to insure they’re going to get those seats.”


Some of them were willing to pay more than $200 for a set of four seats at Imax Corp. giant screen theaters, according to ads posted on craigslist.com and other Web sites. Part of “Dark Knight” was filmed using specially made Imax cameras, and seats in those higher-priced theaters went fast as a result.


The last time the words “repeat business” got wide mention to describe a film’s success was in 1998, when “Titanic” was on its way to becoming the biggest box-office smash of all time. That film, which went on to win 11 Academy Awards including best picture, made $600 million in domestic receipts and $1.8 billion worldwide. It remained at the top of the box-office charts for a record 14 straight weeks.


No other film has ever come close. The No. 2 film on the worldwide list is 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” which made $1.13 billion. That movie also won 11 Oscars, including best picture.


While Dergarabedian was reluctant to say “Dark Knight” could reach “Titanic” levels, he said it could easily become the strongest-performing movie this year and is on track to stay atop the box-office heap for at least one more weekend.


Twentieth-Century Fox’s “X-Files: I Want to Believe” and Sony Corp.‘s “Step Brothers” are on tap for next weekend. Fox is a unit of News Corp., the parent of MarketWatch, which published this report.


While “X-Files” is a brand name, it’s been six years since the television show of the same name went off the air. The series spawned a 1998 film.


Meanwhile, “Dark Knight” could easily post more than $75 million in U.S. receipts this coming weekend.


“I think it’s pretty much on target to do that,” Dergarabedian said. “I don’t see how any of the newcomers expect to earn those kinds of numbers.”


Whether “Dark Knight” can help keep summer numbers up above last year’s record levels remains to be seen. It did lead U.S. theaters over the weekend to gains of 70 percent year over year, but grosses for the summer season are up a mere 1 percent so far vs. this time last year.


Jeff Hartke, senior market analyst for box-office analysis firm Hollywood Stock Exchange, said while the film posted record numbers, it cut into the business of other films such as “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” whose business dropped 70 percent.


“That’s a pretty significant drop-off,” Hartke said. “It really ran into a buzz saw with ‘Dark Knight’.”


The new ‘Batman’ installment hasn’t been enough to hoist year-to-date numbers up over last year’s level. Totals from ticket sales are still down a fraction of a percent and attendance is off nearly 4 percent. (Higher ticket prices account for the disparity between receipts and attendance.)


While “Dark Knight” could help set summer box-office records, it’ll need help. There are a few comedies and a couple of action pictures on tap in coming weeks. A new film in Universal Pictures’ “Mummy” series, “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” is coming out Aug. 1. But that also has been a long-dormant franchise with the last film in that series released in 2001.


“It’s going to be tough right now,” Dergarabedian said. “It’s such a short season that any major change is felt in a very strong way.”


Hartke said one thing working in “Dark Knight’s” favor is its repeat business is on track to help it outperform most “event” films, or major releases from studios.


“Usually event movies will do a little more than double their opening weekend,” he said. “This is going to be more than an event movie.”

Tagged as: batman | the dark knight
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