'Dark Knight Rises' overshadowed by tragedy

LOS ANGELES -- By midnight Thursday, The Dark Knight Rises had won the box-office weekend and entered the record books.

A few minutes past midnight, no one cared.

The Colorado theater massacre during The Dark Knight Rises froze Hollywood. In a rare show of unity, movie studios declined to report weekend ticket sales, a modern-day first for the industry.

Bigger than the box office, movie analysts say, is the legacy of director Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises. Some fans already considered the trilogy cursed because of Heath Ledger's death by accidental overdose. Ledger, who played The Joker in The Dark Knight, died months before its premiere.

"There will be a dark shadow hanging over this (trilogy) for as long as people remember the massacre," says Scott Mantz, film producer and critic for Access Hollywood. "And people aren't going to forget."

The deaths aren't likely to diminish reverence for the trilogy among fans and critics, Mantz says. "But there's always going to be some sadness associated with it, because it's the first (mass shooting) of its kind. The worst imaginable thing that could have happened to Chris Nolan and Batman happened this weekend. I'm not sure how you overcome that."

The true test of the aftermath comes next weekend, "when we'll see if fans still want to buy tickets," says Jeff Bock, box-office analyst for ticket-tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. "This is the first time we'll know if they're as deeply disturbed by all this as the industry."

The shootings muted what would have been a day of celebration for distributor Warner Bros. The Dark Knight Rises had collected $30.6 million, the second-highest take on record for midnight screenings. Although Friday evening the studio said it would not release official box-office numbers until today out of respect for the victims, analysts at Exhibitor Relations estimate the film hit $160 million over the weekend. That would make it the third-highest opening on record, behind this summer's The Avengers ($207.4 million) and last year's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 ($169.2 million). If the numbers hold, Rises also would mark the highest debut on record for a 2-D movie.

On Saturday, Disney, Fox, Lionsgate, Sony and Universal studios also decided not to release box-office numbers.

"You have to give the studios credit, especially Warner Bros.," Mantz says. "They're having to write the book on how to handle something like this, because no one has had to."

Solemn times ahead

Though analysts expect Rises, which was praised by reviewers, to be one of the year's biggest movies commercially, they wonder whether the film's critical and financial achievements will fade from memory before the shootings do.

"This is someone coming into our chosen church and killing people who were sharing the communal experience that is so much a part of so many of our lives," says David Poland of the blog site Moviecitynews.com. "It was a massacre of some of the most enthusiastic members of the movie-loving community."

That love will be tested among awards circles as well. Analysts say the shootings may have inadvertently made Rises an Oscar front-runner. "Batman was already holding one giant IOU from the (motion picture) academy for The Dark Knight for a best-picture nomination," says Tom O'Neill, author of Movie Awards and head of the awards handicapping site Goldderby.com.

The shooting "cements the Oscar talk" for Rises among academy members, who probably will show sympathy and solidarity in the wake of the killings, O'Neill says.

"Lately, the academy has been going to art-house movies like (best-picture winners) The Hurt Locker, The King's Speech and The Artist," O'Neill says. "This is going to force them to take a long, serious look at blockbuster entertainment again."

Outrage was so vocal after The Dark Knight's best-picture snub that it prompted the academy to double its field from five to 10 candidates to acknowledge more popular fare.

"If it doesn't get in now, there would be a mutiny," O'Neill says. "It will face fierce competition, but right now, considering the acclaim and how the franchise has been treated in the past, it certainly makes it a clear front-runner."

The 'curse' factor

Even a best-picture win, though, won't unshackle the franchise from its macabre realities. Some comic-book fans still refer to the "Superman curse," coined after actors George Reeves' suicide and Christopher Reeve's accident that left him paralyzed. The comic-book movie The Crow earned a similar reputation after star Brandon Lee died on the set in 1993.

But fans are beginning to rally. Social media sites have turned into makeshift memorials for the victims in Aurora, Colo. Moviegoers used the photo-sharing site Instagram to beam pictures of themselves in Batman shirts at screenings. Others are composing and swapping pictures of a stoic Christian Bale from Batman Begins with messages such as "Thoughts and prayers to those in Denver."

That reaction has been so strong because theater shootings are so rare, Mantz says. "It happened where we go to be safe. The Dark Knight (movies) will always have a tragic element, which isn't fair, because they're the best comic-book movies ever made."

Bock says analysts are uncertain of the tragedy's resonance because it shares little with the one that preceded it.

"Heath Ledger's death was different, because people could pay homage to a great performance," he says. "Here, the violence and darkness is so real it may be tough for people to separate from that. We don't know what to expect because we've never seen this happen in a movie, the one place we still felt safe."


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