Box office preview: Will 'The Dark Knight Rises' set a new weekend record?

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Box office fanboys, the time has finally come.

Warner Bros.’ $250 million sequel The Dark Knight Rises arrives in theaters at midnight tonight, and it’s destined for one of the strongest opening weekends of all time.

The final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy could very well set a new opening weekend record if it outdoes The Avengers‘ $207.4 million May debut, but that will be a difficult figure to reach — not impossible, but very tough.

When The Dark Knight hit theaters in 2008, it was riding a wave of excitement. Not only had 2005′s Batman Begins (which made a rather humble — by comparison — $205.3 million) found a massive audience on home video, but Heath Ledger’s death and much-talked-about performance as the Joker made the film a must-see. These factors, when combined with deafening buzz for the well-reviewed sequel, helped The Dark Knight set an opening weekend record with $158.4 million. Until the $169.2 million bow of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2  in 2011, that record still stood. (Less than a year later, The Avengers stole the record from Potter.) 

Thanks to The Dark Knight‘s mammoth $534 million box office performance and near-universal audience praise, The Dark Knight Rises should easily fly right past its predecessor’s debut (which, to be clear, is still the best debut for a 2-D movie ever). Midnight showings will help — as moviegoing continues to become ever more front-loaded, films like the Harry Potter and Twilight series have turned midnight showings into common practice in the last five years, and The Dark Knight Rises has an outside shot at breaking the midnight box office record, which is currently held by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2. That film conjured a jaw-dropping $43.5 million, and that record will likely remain — The Dark Knight Rises‘ fanbase skews a bit older than Potter‘s, and they’re less likely to rush out on opening night for a special screening.

That’s not to say that audiences aren’t massively excited for TDKR. Nolan, once the notable but obscure helmer of Memento, has become a major draw after the one-two punch of The Dark Knight and Inception, which bolstered his A-list status with a $292.6 million haul. It certainly won’t hurt that three of Inception‘s main cast members — Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, and Marion Cotillard — star in The Dark Knight Rises, but, of course, people will be showing up primarily to see Christian Bale’s final turn as Bruce Wayne.

Reviews for Rises are strong overall (EW gave the film a “B”), but not at the same level as The Dark Knight. And without a villain as dynamic as the Joker, Rises might not have the same legs at the box office as The Dark Knight, which earned 70 percent of its box office after opening weekend. Still, this won’t be a Spider-Man 3 situation, either. That film earned a whopping 45 percent of its total gross in its first three days, and then fell rapidly after disappointing word of mouth. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves — we all know that The Dark Knight Rises is going to make a lot of money.

The film is opening in 4,404 theaters — the second-widest release of all time behind The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, which started on 4,468 — which includes 332 IMAX venues. While higher IMAX ticket prices will add a hefty chunk of change to Rises‘ opening weekend gross, the film, unlike most modern blockbusters, is not being presented in 3-D (at Nolan’s insistence), and even if The Dark Knight Rises has more actual attendees, catching up to The Avengers‘ monstrous opening weekend (52 percent of which came from 3-D screens) will be difficult.

Fandango reports that 91 percent of daily ticket sales are for the caped crusader. MovieTickets.com says that 88 percent of their daily ticket sales are for The Dark Knight Rises as well. According to BoxOffice.com’s Phil Contrino, the film has generated massive social media buzz on both Twitter and Facebook, where its official page has nearly 12 million “likes.”

All of this should add up to a remarkable weekend gross just under $200 million. Competition shouldn’t be a problem. Ice Age: Continental Drift appeals to a totally different audience and is looking at a sophomore weekend in the $25 million range. The Amazing Spider-Man is entering its third weekend, and due to the front-loaded July 4 frame, it’s already found the bulk of its audience. The way is clear for The Dark Knight Rises to do some serious business, and it may take in about $192 million over its first three days.

Could it earn more? Absolutely. Less? Perhaps. But you’ll have to stay tuned to EW all weekend long for full box office coverage of how high The Dark Knight actually Rises. If you want up-to-the-minute box office updates, follow me on Twitter.

How much do you think The Dark Knight Rises will earn this weekend? Should The Avengers be concerned?

More on EW.com:
Owen & Lisa: ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is ‘not just a movie, but an experience’
Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale discuss key scene at the heart of ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy
Christopher Nolan addresses online outrage over negative ‘Dark Knight Rises’ reviews
Will ‘The Dark Knight’s Christian Bale be seeing ‘Newsies’?

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