Top 12 Film Industry Stories of 2008:
#1: The Dark Knight. Duh.
By David Mumpower
January 15, 2009

This is probably our last excuse to use this image for awhile.

The Dark Knight earned $531 million. Duh.

We had a debate about whether or not to quit right there. Some of these are not rocket science, and there is clearly a "duh!" factor to naming the Batman film's performance as the Top Industry Story of 2008. In point of fact, for the first time in the seven years we have been doing this series, we did not even vote over number one. We were all unanimous in our agreement that The Dark Knight was going to be the top story of the year. Ballots only included the other stories on the list. That's how certain we were about this selection.

How did The Dark Knight become the biggest story of the year? It began with tragedy almost a year ago on January 22, 2008. Heath Ledger was discovered naked and unresponsive, face down on the floor. A housekeeper at an apartment owned by Mary-Kate Olsen (although she would deny this fact later on) found the actor in this state and immediately contacted the actress as well as the local authorities. Attempts to resuscitate the 28-year-old Academy Award nominee were unsuccessful. Dead from an accidental drug overdose, Ledger's tragedy accidentally raised the profile of what was already anticipated to be one of the biggest films of 2008.

Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan's reboot of the Batman franchise, had salvaged the character's reputation after the unfortunate period now known as the Joel Schumacher Era. Gone were bad puns and nipple-y costumers. In was Frank Miller-flavored realism, especially the concept of how real people could evolve into emotionally tormented superheroes and sociopaths. The first film had squarely taken on the legacy of Jack Nicholson as The Joker by showing a playing card at the end, leaving no doubt who would be the primary villain in the sequel. The casting of Ledger in that role was viewed as a masterstroke by many (although I must confess I was not one of them), and glowing reports from the set indicated that it was a role he was born to play.

Ledger, who had mumbled his way through his storied role in Brokeback Mountain, had long ago come to appreciate the importance of cadence in character development. While I am not a fan of his work in Brokeback Mountain, one of BOP's finest voices, Jamie D. Ruccio, is and he has offered this summation of Ledger's intent: "His character was so repressed about his feelings that he even strangled his words. He was so confined he couldn't even really speak." Ledger successfully used the medium of inarticulate mumbling to give a deeper background to the torture of his closeted homosexual cowboy. He used similar ideology in his development of The Joker, at some point having the epiphany that making the man sound like a ventriloquist would imbue the character with the appropriate amount of creepy disembodiment. The results of course speak for themselves as Ledger recently won a Golden Globe for his Best Supporting Actor for his role, a first for a comic book adaptation. He is also the overwhelming favorite bordering on a mortal lock to win an Academy Award for his performance.

Undeniably, Heath Ledger was the engine that made The Dark Knight go, but Christopher Nolan was still the mechanic. He had fit together the perfect pieces with his first Batman movie, managing to trick audiences into believing the villain was an entirely different person until the very end. And he was equally successful in whetting the audience's appetite for a sequel. Starting about six months prior to the release of The Dark Knight, some of the finest theaters in North America - those equipped to handle IMAX and Real-D technology - began airing a short heist film starring Ledger as The Joker. This promotion succeeded in building buzz for the sequel's release, but it also proved to be the first several minutes of the movie itself, a remarkable juxtaposition of marketing and filmmaking. The sheer genius of this sequence cannot be understated and even had Ledger not passed away, this six-minute clip would have gone a long way in securing the box office dominance of The Dark Knight.

And boy, was it ever dominant. The $185 million production budget was quite a gamble given the fact that Batman Begins had earned "only" $205.3 million domestically. Warner Bros. needed a much bigger performance from the sequel to justify the added expense from the not-cheap $150 million spent on the first Batman film made by Nolan. The studio already knew the gamble had paid off a full six weeks out when tracking for The Dark Knight indicated it had a chance to beat the more storied Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as well as the surprising Iron Man to be the biggest film of the summer of 2008. Since both of those releases were going to earn $300 million domestically, the tracking for The Dark Knight was, as studio marketers occasionally hype, through the roof. And this was not a situation where the marketing was too optimistic, a sad trend during the summer of 2008, either. Before the movie started showing, it was already breaking records.

The Dark Knight was exhibited in 4,366 locations, breaking the previous record set of 4,362 set by Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End 14 months prior. Thanks to an unprecedented volume of midnight showings on Thursday evening/Friday morning, The Dark Knight had already earned $18.5 million before breakfast had begun in North America. This beat a seemingly unbreakable record set by Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith in almost 10%. By the time its first 24 hours were in the books, The Dark Knight had accrued an unbelievable $67,165,092, breaking Spider-Man 3's single day record of $59,841,919 by 12.2%. Batman's latest adventure wasn't just beating box office records; it was shattering them. In fact, the $67,165,092 it managed in single day would have been the fifth biggest opening of 2008 on its own. Consider that Quantum of Solace and Twilight, two other entries on our Top Industry Stories of 2008 list, managed $67,528,882 and $69,637,740, respectively. Those are two of the most successful projects of the year yet they needed an entire weekend to do what Batman could do in a day. By the time The Dark Knight had spent a single day in theaters, everyone in the industry already knew we were looking at a truly historic performance.

The numbers speak for themselves. The Dark Knight wound up with an opening weekend of $158,411,483, breaking by $7.3 million the prior record set by Spider-Man 3 in 2007. Shockingly, the movie never slowed down from its July 18, 2008 release date until the end of that month. It was the number one film every day of release, never slipping out of first place until August 1st, and even that was temporary. In total, The Dark Knight was the first choice of North American consumers on 21 out of its first 26 days in release. Even more remarkably, it managed box office of at least $10 million on each of its first 11 days. It had revenue of $333,929,159 by the time it showed any signs of slowing down. That number was already good enough to make The Dark Knight the number one film of 2008. Of course, it didn't stop there.

Here are some fun trivia notes about The Dark Knight's box office run. It has the biggest Friday of all time, the biggest Sunday of all time, and the first trio of $40+ million consecutive days ever. It has the biggest non-holiday Monday ever, it is the fastest film to $100 million ever (beating Spider-Man 3 and Dead Man's Chest in terms of total 2-day volume), it is the fastest film to $200 million ever, it is the fastest film to $300 million ever, it is the fastest film to $400 million ever and - wait for it - it is the fastest film to $500 million ever. What's a phrase beyond cha-ching?

Of course, the biggest story of the summer, one I wound up documenting in BOP's Daily Numbers Analysis, was the chase to beat Titanic. That, of course, proved to be the only unsuccessful aspect of The Dark Knight's release. While it only needed 45 days to get to $500 million as opposed to the 98 days Titanic required, box office simply behaves too differently in 2008 relative to 1997 for a movie to hold that well that long. The Dark Knight's last day in the box office top ten came on September 25th, its 70th day in theaters. At that time, it had domestic receipts of $522,810,263. In the interim, the Batman movie has crept up to just over $531 million worth of box office, leaving it $69 million short of Titanic.

For a while, the more hopeful fans of The Dark Knight kept pointing to an expected Academy Awards season push for the film as a way to attain the required box office to get the film to the top of the box office heap. Alas, it's become clear in recent weeks that there isn't the amount of demand needed to pull off that sort of feat, particularly not with the film already available (and tearing up the charts) on home video. The Dark Knight has already earned another $280 million through DVD and Blu Ray sales, making it the most lucrative performer of 2008 in that venue as well, despite the fact that its release did not occur until December 9th. Given all of this information, it's readily apparent why the staff at Box Office Prophets has named The Dark Knight the Biggest Film Industry Story of 2008.

The Dark Knight earned $531 million. Duh.