'The Dark Knight' generates hero-size hype

Rick Bentley
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Look out, Spider-Man. There is every reason to believe - from advance ticket sales to buzz - that Batman is about to do to you what Superman, Iron Man, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four could not do. None of those comic-book-inspired films could knock Spidey off the top of the box-office list.

Steve Rhay, general manager of Sierra Vista 16 in Clovis, Calif., said two weeks ago that he could already "feel the power" of "The Dark Knight." And it doesn't open until next Friday.

"We have had more people calling to verify the opening date than any other movie. We did have anticipation for 'Iron Man' and a little for 'Indiana Jones.' But I think this year the Fourth of July falls on July 18," Rhay says.

Rhay is referring to the power of Independence Day weekend, when such monster box-office hits as "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and "The Transformers" have opened the past two years.

Rhay is convinced "The Dark Knight" will whip in a blink past the $205 million generated by "Batman Begins," the first telling of the Batman story by director/writer Christopher Nolan. The theater manager's theory is that fans thought "Batman Begins" would be another disappointment like the critically bashed 1997 "Batman & Robin."

Harry Medved, a spokesperson for the ticket-sales Web site Fandango, predicts there will be a lot of "blurry-eyed people" at work next Friday because of all the advance sales for the 12:01 a.m. July 18 screenings. The midnight screening at the IMAX here was sold out three weeks before the screening. And many of the tickets for the 3:30 a.m. screening have been purchased.

At this point, "The Dark Knight" tickets are selling faster than advance sales for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." "Iron Man" and "Sex and the City."

What does a bat have to do to reach the top of the box office? "Spider-Man" earned almost $404 million in the United States after it was released in 2002. That's good enough to rank sixth among the top U.S. box-office draws of all time. "Titanic" is the undisputed champ with more than $600 million in domestic tickets sold. The "Spider-Man sequels were no slouches. The 2004 "Spider-Man 2" ranks 10th with sales of $373 million and "Spider-Man 3" ranks 15th with $336 million.

So riddle me this: What makes "The Dark Knight" look like such a potential spider smasher? One word: hype.

Warner Bros., distributors of the latest film featuring the cowled crime fighter, started to tease fans a year ago. Those who could crack cryptic Web pages found references to The Joker (Heath Ledger) and Harvey Dent/Two Face (Aaron Eckhart). Phrases such as "I believe in Harvey Dent" and "Why so serious?" a movie catchphrase destined to join the ranks of "I'll be back," crept into online chatter.

The first big showcase for the film was last summer's ComicCon in San Diego. Thousands of rabid fans got to see an exclusive movie trailer that featured only the voices of Christian Bale (Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred) and Ledger (The Joker). On the screen was a black Batman emblem that was slowly eaten away by the light.

Dave Allread of Heroes Comics says the hype has been "going on forever."

"Everyone I talk to, this is the movie they want to see," Allread says. "I talked to a couple of people last week who had already purchased their tickets. And they bought both regular tickets and for IMAX.

"This is all they can talk about."

Allread says the death of Ledger in January drew more attention to the film. In fact, he has seen so much about the movie, including a movie trailer (made exclusively for Domino's Pizza), that he doesn't want to see anything else about the movie until it opens.

"The Dark Knight" producer Charles Roven says, "We knew from the last time there would be a tremendous desire, certainly from the core fans, to get as much information as possible, as quickly as they could.

"So we definitely talked about trying in some fashion to manage the way we were putting out the different assets we had, whether they were stills or film footage, in an effort to create the proper ramp-up to the picture."

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