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Why “Dark Knight” won’t sink “Titanic”

As “The Dark Knight” kept breaking box office records, first for a Thursday midnight showing ($18 million), then for a Friday ($67 million), then for an opening weekend ($158 million), it became natural, particularly for its enthusiastic fan base, to assume it would keep going. Shouldn’t it become, like, the biggest box office hit ever?

So the specter of “Titanic” was raised even before John Horn’s article in last week’s Los Angeles Times: ‘The Dark Knight’ enters ‘Titanic’ territory.” But people who know box office know you don’t raise the “Titanic” lightly.

Why they call it ‘Titanic’

“Titanic” grossed more than $600 million in the U.S., tops on that list, while the No. 2 film, “Star Wars,” which benefited from multiple releases (1977, 1979, 1997), is stuck way back at $460 million, or only 76 percent of “Titanic's” take.

But that’s just the start of the story. Globally, “Titanic” brought in $1.8 billion. Only seven films are within half that number, and the closest, “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” is still way back at $1.1 billion, or only 60 percent of “Titanic's" final haul. Put it this way: You add the entire worldwide gross of “Transformers” (No. 29 all time) to “Return of the King” (No. 2) and you still wouldn’t be there. Fanboys are fanboys, but there are no repeat customers like teenage girls in love with Leonardo DiCaprio.

The news gets worse for “Dark Knight” fans hoping to obliterate box office records. Because, as titanic as “Titanic's” numbers are, once you adjust the domestic totals for inflation, “Titanic” isn’t even No. 1 anymore. It’s No. 6. “Gone with the Wind” is No. 1. Indeed, what’s startling when you look at the adjusted domestic numbers is how low films released in this decade rank. We appear to be in the age of the blockbuster, with franchise flicks such as “Spider-Man,” “Pirates” and “Shrek” making gobs of money each time out of the gate. But adjust the numbers for inflation and the highest-ranking film of the decade, “Shrek 2,” is No. 29.

How low is this? Every decade since sound was introduced is represented before the 2000s.

This isn’t exactly news. Inflation masks the fact that people just don’t go to the movies as often as they used to. Edward Jay Epstein, in his book “The Big Picture,” writes that “In contrast to the 4.7 billion movie tickets sold in America in 1947, there were only 1.57 billion tickets sold in 2003.” We have so many other forms of entertainment now, so many other ways to watch a movie.

The point of these box office charts — for us, more than the studios — is to find some measure of a film’s popularity, but, with the ways to watch a film is as varied as the films themselves (DVD rentals and sales, pay TV, free TV, streaming), it’s getting harder and harder to get the complete picture. Box office, to coin a phrase, is just the tip of the iceberg.

That said, just how far might “The Dark Knight” go up our three box office charts?

It has no chance on the inflation-adjusted domestic chart. “Gone With the Wind's” gross, adjusted to 2008 dollars, is $1.4 billion, and no film is ever going to touch that. But, as we shall see, “The Dark Knight” has a good shot at surpassing “Shrek 2's” inflation-adjusted total ($503 million in 2008 dollars) to become the most popular film of the decade.

As for worldwide grosses? The question isn’t whether “The Dark Knight” can best “Titanic's” $1.8 billion, but whether it can get halfway there. No superhero movie has ever done this. The highest worldwide gross for a superhero movie is “Spider-Man 3” at $890 million, and this still required $554 million from abroad. Batman movies have never done gangbusters in foreign countries (“Knight's” foreign gross is currently at $202 million), but it’s possible.

That leaves the unadjusted domestic box office chart and “Titanic's” $600 million. After 17 days, “The Dark Knight” is already near $400 million. Can it do it?

One way to formulate a new film’s final domestic gross is to find a similar film whose percentage drop-offs (daily, weekly) are closely related, and then extrapolate.

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” satisfies this criteria for “Dark Knight.” That film, also rated PG-13, also set the opening weekend box office record in July, on its way to grossing more than $1 billion worldwide. For its second weekend, its box office dropped 54 percent, compared with “Dark Knight's” 52.5 percent. For its entire second week, “Pirates” dropped 53.7 percent, while “Dark Knight” dropped 52.9 percent. All in all, pretty close, percentage-wise.

So what happens when you plug “Dark Knight's” original weekly total ($238 million) into “Pirates'" weekly percentage drop-offs?

You get a final domestic gross of $515 million. Second all-time, but still $85 million short of “Titanic.”

It’s not about money; it’s about sending a message

This is merely a formula, of course. Other factors will come into play. “The Dark Knight” is better than “Pirates 2,” so it should have longer legs. Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, singled out for high praise and Oscar buzz, may draw into theaters moviegoers who might not otherwise check out a superhero pic. And if Ledger, or the film itself, is nominated for an Oscar next January, that could boost its box office as well. Assuming it’s still in theaters.

Even so, it would take a lot to make up $85 million.

Regardless, “The Dark Knight” is important for another reason. In recent years our highest-grossing films haven’t been very good (“Spider-Man 3,” “Pirates 2”), but “The Dark Knight” is both hugely successful and critically acclaimed. That’s a nice change. And in this age of disconnection, it’s given us something we need now and then: a shared experience worth talking about.

—In its desperation, msnbc.com turned to a man they didn’t fully understand. This article was originally published on 8/10/2008 on MSNBC.com.