EDITORIAL: “The Dark Knight Rises: Why The Caped Crusader Couldn’t Take Down The Avengers”

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The Dark Knight Rises
marks the unofficial end of the 2012 summer movie season, one that has seen its fair share of surprises and disappointments. Although August still has some high-profile releases left – Total Recall, The Bourne Legacy, and The Expendables II among them – the major studios have all released their $200 million dollar box office contenders by now. Marketing budgets were exhausted and records were set, but the party is now over and the next few weeks should see a calmer box office. Warner Brothers’ TDKR was to be the final celebration of the season, a guaranteed hit that some believed capable of stealing the top opening weekend record from May’s The Avengers. The Batman threequel ended this weekend with a somewhat underwhelming $160 million, enough to secure the weekend record for a 2D film but a far cry from The Avengers’ $207.4 gross. The tragic events in Aurora, Colorado on Friday may have deterred some audiences from running to their local theaters but even before the incident most experts had predicted that Batman would fall short of his Marvel rivals. Their expectations weren’t this low. Judging from record-breaking online presales, some analysts had predicted a $185 million gross, with optimists betting as high as $198 million, numbers that now appear exorbitant. Something was off for the Caped Crusader this weekend. Here’s why Batman couldn’t bring in as much dough as The Avengers:

1. Release date

Of the top 100 opening weekends of all time, only 16 have been in July. The number of titles is significantly greater for the month of May — 31. Audiences are particularly receptive to the first mega blockbusters of the season because spring bores them with a bevy of generic low-budget horror flicks and rom-coms. The moviegoer audience who shows up for a couple events each year is a considerable portion of the public, and they explain part of The Avenger’s $50 million lead.

Summer’s hectic release schedule — a new blockbuster every week — also inundates the casual attendees. This explains why the more genre-focused releases, like the three action pics mentioned earlier, are kept on the backburner until August. The heavyweight contenders are all placed front and center, beginning in May and ending in mid July, with the hopes of luring as many as possible. TDKR was unfortunately the last in line and its decreased gross may be attributed to simple audience fatigue.

This doesn’t mean that a movie can’t succeed in July – TDKR, its predecessor, and numerous Harry Potters are proof of that – but it does have less a chance of capturing that non-committed audience than May releases. If TDKR and The Avengers swapped slots, the results would be closer.

2. 3D Ticket Sales

3D remains an unpredictable phenomenon. There is no consistent trend for this half-century-old technology that failed to entice audiences in the 1980s before making a surprising comeback in the last few years. Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan has publicly expressed his dislike for the format, fearing that a focus on technology and visuals threatens the presentation of a story. “I never meet anybody who actually likes the format, and it’s always a source of great concern to me when you’re charging a higher price for something that nobody seems to really say they have any great love for,” he commented in a press interview early last week.

Does 3D sell? As much as the studios would like you to believe it does, the truth is it’s too early to tell. After Avatar became the highest-grossing movie of all time in December 2009, the industry scrambled to add the format to a ton of new productions. Theater owners and executives, excited by the prospect of higher ticket prices, began to upgrade projectors nationwide. The results since then have been largely hit or miss.

The Avengers luckily fell into the former column; 52% of its opening weekend sales come from 3D tickets, and the statistic helped push it over the $200 million barrier. The average price for a 3D ticket is estimated to be between 18% and 25% greater than a 2D ticket. With the cost of a standard movie ticket peaking at $7.93 in February, this means that one out of every two Avengers attendees shelled out between $1.42 and $1.98 extra to see the film.

A buck and a half per person may not seem like much but it adds up when you consider The Avengers had 26 million attendees opening weekend. This works out to an extra gross of between $19.1 and $26.8 million just from the increased price of a 3D ticket. As a filmmaker, Nolan is worthy of commendation for sticking to his artistic principles. As a businessman, his choice to keep Batman in 2D may have been a foolish decision.

3. Running time

The theme of little things adding up is present here as well. At first glance, The Dark Knight Rises’ running time of 165 minutes doesn’t seem that much greater than The Avengers’ 143. For movies with this much demand, however, every screening counts. Twenty extra minutes several times per day adds up to one less packed screening of TDKR daily. Multiply that by three days and the number of theaters in America. The impact of the running time is likely small since theaters cleared many screens in anticipation of both flicks, but it definitely played a role.

4. Summer of sequels

Summer has always been oversaturated with sequels but 2012 was particularly troublesome. Since the first week of May, the quasi-sequel The Avengers was joined by Men in Black 3, Madagascar 3, Ice Age: Continental Drift and a Spider-Man reboot. Additionally, the mediocre quality of originals like Battleship and Dark Shadows failed to excite audiences, and may have left a bad taste in viewers’ mouths. There were exceptions — entries like the kid-friendly Brave and adult-friendly Ted did triumph — but this summer largely offered more of the same. As with the release schedule, perhaps TDKR’s performance was due in part to audience burnout.

5. The Marvel lineup

Heath Ledger’s Joker was perhaps the biggest selling point of 2008’s Dark Knight. Its follow-up’s lack of a recognizable villain made marketing considerably more difficult. Batman’s new nemesis Bane had only lived on the pages of comics for two decades, not enough time to secure the cultural recognition that either the Joker or the Avengers had.

The fact that every individual Avenger – Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk – had all seen a feature film in recent years also helped the Marvel heroes beat down Batman. Some conspiracy theorists even claimed that the previous flicks were created only to serve as two-hour trailers for this summer’s biggest hit.

But isn’t Batman enough of a selling point? Yes and no. Although the Caped Crusader is more of a cultural touchstone than any of the characters of The Avengers individually (which explains why he beat out all of their respective flicks), he did not possess the appeal to overwhelm all of them as a group. Again, it all ties back to history. The first Avengers comic was issued a half-century ago in January 1963. Coupled with a livelier tone that was not as repellant as TDKR’s apocalyptic, somber one, the Avengers was able to utilize the widespread love for these superheroes among multiple generations to draw a larger audience to theaters.

Written by Boris Paskhaver

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