Could "The Dark Knight Rises" sell more tickets on its opening weekend than "The Avengers" but still wind up making less money at the box office?
If it does, 3D -- or the lack of it in the case of "The Dark Knight Rises" -- would be the culprit.
"Dark Knight Rises" director Christopher Nolan has been among the loudest critics of Hollywood's rush to 3D, claiming it degrades the creative and viewing experience. "It's all about the money," he told the PGA's Produced By conference in May.
Just how much it's about the money could come into sharp focus starting Thursday midnight.
The last of three blockbuster Batman movies Nolan has made for Warner Bros., "Dark Knight Rises" is expected by analysts to open somewhere between $170 million and $195 million. That would make it the best U.S. opening ever-- for a non-3D movie.
If so, that "best debut ever" honor would still belong to Disney and Marvel's "The Avengers," which bowed to $207 million in the first week in May. About 52 percent of that total came from premium --aka more expensive-- 3D tickets. That adds up to about an extra $20 million, and while "Dark Knight Rises" will be on 332 premium-priced Imax screens, that could be the difference between the two films' first weekends.
"The Avengers" bowed on 4,349 screens in all, 3,364 of which were 3D, along with 275 Imax. "The Dark Knight Rises" will be in 4,404 theaters, with a record 332 Imax screens, and there will be 3,700 midnight Thursday screenings.
Of course it isn't all about the opening weekend. Critics have been nearly rapturous over "Dark Knight Rises," with Christian Bale reprising the title role, and the film has cast a giant shadow on the cultural landscape all summer. The most conservative observers foresee a long and lucrative run both here and abroad.
But the smashing success of "The Avengers" and "Dark Knight Rises" will define the Hollywood's summer of 2012. And while executives at Warner Bros. and Disney are loathe to make any comparisons, it's hard to imagine bragging rights aren't on their minds.
And even with considerations surrounding 3D aside, most industry observers think "Dark Knight Rises" will have a tough time matching the opening and overall numbers put up by "The Avengers."
"It was a perfect storm," Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations told TheWrap. "You had an audience primed for the summer's first big event, (director) Joss Whedon was making his debut and all the heat of the previous Marvel movies sort of culminated. It just clicked with audiences, even whole families, and it seemed to have just the right tone for a summer popcorn movie."
"Dark Knight Rises" has certainly built anticipation, evidenced by its huge presales. And the buzz surrounding Nolan's final entry in his Batman trilogy -- "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" were the first two -- has been near fever-pitch for weeks. But the relentlessly dark and gritty tone of the film, which is at the core of its appeal to many adults, might cut both ways at the box office.
"I doubt it will keep anyone away the first weekend," said Bock, "but it could cut into family and repeat business, both of which helped "The Avengers' significantly."
The last Batman movie, "The Dark Knight," was a huge financial success. With a production budget of around $185 million, it opened to $158 million in July, 2008 and went on to make $533 million domestically and more than $1 billion worldwide. That was a huge jump from the Nolan's first Batman film, "Batman Begins," which made $205 million after opening to $48 million.
The death six months before the opening of actor Heath Ledger, who was playing The Joker, the most iconic of Batman villains, spiked media and public interest in "The Dark Knight."
Tom Hardy, a newcomer to the cast along with Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, has been front and center as fearsome bad guy Bane (above) in trailers for "Dark Knight Rises." But no matter how scary and fierce Hardy's Bane might be, it's hard to imagine he will capture the hearts and minds of moviegoers – or send them to the box office -- as did Ledger. The Australian actor was posthumously awarded the supporting actor Oscar for his role as the Clown Prince of Crime.
Another hurdle facing "The Dark Knight" in its pursuit of "The Avengers" is its running time of 2 hours, 45 minutes, as compared to 2 hours, 22 minutes for the Marvel film. That will cut into the number of times the film can be shown in a theater.
"If you have it playing 24 hours a day to packed houses, and I'm sure many theaters will," Bock said, "the numbers of times it can be screened could be at last one fewer per day. And that adds up."
Don't shed any tears for Nolan, Warner Bros. or the film's financier Legendary Entertainment, though. "The Dark Knight Rises" is expected to be among, if not the, most lucrative entry in the eight-film franchise, which has brought in more than $2.6 billion since it began with "Batman" in 1989.
And if "The Dark Knight Rises" opens to anything over $169 million -- the pre-"Avengers" record set by WB's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2" -- no one at Warners will be unhappy.
Even if they're No. 2, with a 2D asterisk.