The Dark Knight

Warner Brothers

At midnight, it comes. With expectations fueled by hundreds of advance sellouts, glorious reviews and Oscar buzz.

The Dark Knight, box-office experts say assuredly, is a $100 million opening-weekend lock—a feat requiring a take of at least $1.4 million every hour for 72 straight hours, a feat accomplished by only 10 movies in Hollywood history.

So far.

"It's just a ripped movie," says Media by the Numbers's Paul Dergarabedian of the latest Batman adventure. "It's not just a superhero movie. It is a crime epic...It kind of transcends that superhero moniker."

The follow-up to Christopher Nolan's franchise restarter, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight returns Christian Bale to Gotham City and casts Heath Ledger as the Joker, a performance, the late actor's last, that is already inspiring Oscar odds. Reviews have been, with few exceptions, raves.

As of today, Fandango said, The Dark Knight was accounting for 94 percent of all its ticket sales. At MovieTickets.com, another online service, the movie was selling tickets at twice the rate of Spider-Man 3, Hollywood's reigning opening weekend champ.

Warner Bros. is giving The Dark Knight every chance to beat Spider-Man 3: It's opening the film at 4,366 theaters, Exhibitor Relations Co. said today, the widest of wide releases ever.

"It's got the room to be a possible record breaker," says the box-office tracking firm's Chad Hartigan.

It'll also have the time. The movie will maximize its opening day by opening at midnight tonight at about 75 percent of its theaters, Hartigan says. From 1:15 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. Friday, there'll be some 500 Dark Knight screenings nationwide, per Fandango, a handful of which will occur at the previously noted but still eye-opening hour of 6 a.m.

Add it all up, and, perhaps surprisingly, box-office observers expect that come Sunday Spider-Man 3 will still be on top, its record $151.1 million, Friday-Sunday record still intact.

For one main thing, Spider-Man 3, unlike The Dark Knight, opened in early May. Like Iron Man this year, that 2007 movie had nothing but a clear running field in front of it. The Dark Knight, by comparison, is a latecomer, arriving at the beach after some of the choice spots have been hogged by hits such as Hancock and WALL-E.

"Spider-Man 3 is probably out of reach," Hartigan says.

Hartigan thinks The Dark Knight could open in the neighborhood of $125 million, putting it at third all-time. Likewise, Box Office Guru's Gitesh Pandya is looking for an opening of $120 million-plus.

But Spider-Man shouldn't get too comfortable. Another of the Webslinger's records could be in play.

Currently, Spider-Man 3 boasts Hollywood's biggest single-day gross, with $59.8 million, per Box Office Mojo stats. Enter The Dark Knight, primed for a potentially unprecedented Friday, with the round-the-clock screenings, the sellouts (270-plus recorded by MovieTickets.com alone), and this: a stat from Fandago that says 38 percent of Dark Knight fans will "take off a few hours or the entire day" on Friday to catch the movie.

Regardless of how the movie opens, The Dark Knight is not expected to close anytime soon.

"I think The Dark Knight is going to have legs," Dergarabedian says. "It totally deserves it, and it's going to generate terrific word of mouth."

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