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'The Dark Knight Rises' tracking is huge

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Several days before it debuts, "The Dark Knight Rises" is generating more audience excitement than the three-highest grossing movies of the last 12 months.

Pre-release research shows director Christopher Nolan's final Batman movie is exceeding mega-hits "The Avengers," "The Hunger Games" and the final "Harry Potter" film in the critical "first choice" category that studios use to gauge moviegoers' interest in their upcoming releases.

As a result, "The Dark Knight Rises" is expected to generate more than $180 million in ticket sales this weekend, according to people who have seen the data but are not authorized to speak publicly. It even has a chance, these people said, of beating the $207-million opening weekend record set by "The Avengers" in May.

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The only complication is that "The Dark Knight Rises" is not 3-D, meaning it won't benefit from the higher ticket prices that "Avengers" collected. While "Dark Knight" is playing on IMAX screens, there are fewer of them than the number of 3-D screens that played "The Avengers," giving the Batman movie fewer theaters at which it can charge a premium.

"Dark Knight Rises" is certain to have the biggest opening ever for a non 3-D movie, a record currently held by Nolan's second Batman movie, "The Dark Knight," which bowed with $158.4 million in 2008. That film ultimately collected $1 billion worldwide, of which $533 million came from the U.S. and Canada.

"The Dark Knight Rises" is among the all-time highest scoring movies in "tracking" just days before it launches. The percentage of potential moviegoers who list the picture as their first choice among upcoming releases is six points higher than that of "The Avengers" on the Monday before it opened, and seven points higher than "Hunger Games."

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Interest in the film is much higher among men than women, although the scores for females are still far greater than most successful movies reach before hitting theaters.

Financed and released by Warner Bros., with 25% of the budget covered by Legendary Pictures, "The Dark Knight Rises" cost between $250 million and $300 million to produce. However tax credits brought that total closer to $230 million, said people familiar with the movie's economics but not authorized to discuss them publicly.

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MORE ON 'DARK KNIGHT RISES': PHOTOS: Tom Hardy, the next Marlon Brando? PHOTOS: 'Dark Knight Rises' premiere ON THE SET: Nolan takes Batman to new place

Follow Ben Fritz on Twitter @benfritz

Follow Amy Kaufman on Twitter @AmyKinLA

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