The Dark Knight: “A Game-Changer for IMAX”

Multiple sources confirmed Wednesday, what I first speculated about Tuesday night. The Dark Knight (Warner Bros) will open at more locations than any film in motion picture history, surpassing the 4,362 locations that opened last May’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (Disney). The final number of playdates will be 4,366. This is not necessarily a bulletin. Execs at competing studios have been murmuring about this possibility for weeks.

Ultimately, it is the screen count that is most critical to determining the size of The Dark Knight’s opening weekend. When Spider-Man 3 (Sony) debuted on the first weekend in May last year, it seized fewer play dates (4,252), but it opened on an estimated 10,000 screens. That means that Spider-Man 3 opened on about 2.35 screens per location. A ratio like that is, frankly, not possible in the month of July, especially with 2 other wide releases, Mamma Mia (Universal) and Space Chimps (Fox), bowing on the same day. (Remember, the only other wide release that took on Spider-Man 3 was Curtis Hanson‘s poker yarn Lucky You, which generated just $2.7M on opening weekend.)

Although screen counts are generally regarded as “state secrets,” sources at competing studios have put The Dark Knight’s number of screens at 9,200+, which I reported on Tuesday. That is a studio record and, likely, the biggest screen count for any movie to open in the month of July and a screens-per-location ratio of 2.1. That is pretty extraordinary given that films like Hancock (Sony), WALL-E (Disney) and Hellboy II (Universal) are holding very strong. One source at a rival studio conceded to me that Warner Bros has “hit this one out of the park” and that they are “getting every possible dollar out of a really good movie.”

I spoke to another competing studio exec yesterday who predicted that The Dark Knight “will be a game-changer for IMAX.” He believes that the IMAX scenes look spectacular, but also shooting in the big camera format will add to the movie’s “playability.” That is his way of saying that an above average number of moviegoers may see The Dark Knight twice.

Warner Bros told The Hollywood Reporter that the pre-sale for its 94 IMAX locations is at $3.5M as of Wednesday. The always-innovative Christopher Nolan had wanted to shoot with 70MM IMAX cameras for years, and finally succeeded with his Batman Begins sequel. About 20 minutes of the new movie is shot with those cumbersome IMAX cameras that have a very short load time–not an easy thing to do.

Critics have hailed the IMAX sequences saying, essentially, “You haven’t seen The Dark Knight until you’ve seen it in IMAX.” Because so many of the IMAX showings for this weekend are already sold out, many moviegoers will see the film in its conventional 35MM format on opening weekend, and then go back to see the movie again in IMAX starting as soon as Monday.

My final prediction for The Dark Knight is not budging. I am calling for $136M, above Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest ($135.63M) and behind Spider-Man 3 ($151.11M), giving it the all-time No. 2 biggest opening weekend. I also see Heath Ledger’s final performance helping to deliver $300M in domestic box office, making it one of the top 3 movies of 2008, although the odds are increasing that it will overtake Paramount films Iron Man and Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull as the No. 1 movie of the year in the US.