"ER" heartthrob George Clooney has proved he can hide behind that mask and fill out a bat cape like any predecessor with "Batman & Robin"--the fourth entry in Warner Bros.' lucrative franchise--capturing the weekend's No. 1 spot and an estimated $43.6 million at the box office.
"This has been one very successful franchise, and Warners did a very good releasing and merchandising campaign to make it that," said John Krier, head of the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. "Certainly, 'Batman' ranks as one of the top franchises along with 'Star Wars,' " he said, referring to another franchise that returned this year.
But the relentless bat wasn't flying solo when it came to bragging rights. Julia Roberts was back with a vengeance as well in "My Best Friend's Wedding," a romantic comedy from Sony's TriStar Pictures, opening at an estimated $21.5 million.
"This is Julia Roberts' best opening, and it's the best three-day opening for a non-holiday sentimental picture," Krier said. "With the public, the perception is this is the best she's been since 'Pretty Woman.' They want to see that smile, and a star--not an actor--has to give the public what they want. It just goes to show you that all a star needs for a comeback--and this is a comeback--is a script right for that particular star."
"This movie gives Julia a chance to return to the $100-million circle," said Jeff Blake, head of Sony Pictures distribution. Roberts' three other films that grossed at least $100 million were "Pretty Woman," her 1990 breakthrough; "Sleeping With the Enemy" in 1991; and "The Pelican Brief" in 1993. Those hits have been followed by a string of less successful films, such as "I Love Trouble" and "Mary Reilly."
But the big news was the new spin on old news--Batman.
In this go-round, the superhero is flanked by a newcomer to his dysfunctional Bat family (Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl) and more villains (Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy and Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze, a hard heart with a thaw spot). Director Joel Schumacher's latest take on the comic book characters, which seems to be getting closer in tone and spirit to the campy TV show, has hit the mark so well that the studio thinks this Bat tale could gross anywhere from $135 million to $150 million domestically and an additional $200 million-plus overseas because of Schwarzenegger's huge international draw.
While some competitors say that "Batman & Robin" will undoubtedly slide in coming weeks, with the upcoming arrival of Disney's "Hercules," Paramount's "Face/Off" and Sony's "Men in Black," Warners is quick to remind that this is a fourth in a franchise.
By comparison, Barry Reardon, the studio's head of distribution, said the first "Batman," with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, opened to $42.7 million in 1989 and grossed $251.2 million domestically. "Batman Returns," with Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito, followed in 1992, opening to $47.7 million but grossing only $162.8 million--the weakest showing of the franchise. "Batman Forever," in 1995, introduced Val Kilmer as the caped crusader and brought on Schumacher as director and Jim Carrey as the evil Riddler; it scored the biggest opening weekend of the four films, at $52.7 million, and went on to gross $184 million.
And if overseas expectations ring true, the fourth could be the biggest international performer in the franchise. This first grossed $130.4 million overseas; the second, $103.6 million; the third, $149 million.
"The difference with the third 'Batman' and this one is that it opened by itself with no real competition," Warner Bros.' Reardon noted. ' 'My Best Friend's Wedding,' which did very well, has the same audience as this 'Batman.' This 'Batman' is the seventh-biggest opening of all time for any movie on a three-day weekend. And when it comes to Top 10 openings for a three-day weekend, the four pictures in the franchise rank second, sixth, seventh and eighth."
"Batman & Robin" also makes a sharp, successful turn for what has been a dour period for Warner Bros. at the box office. The studio is already said to be considering a fifth "Batman."
"You look at this ["Batman & Robin"], and most later sequels in a franchise don't continue to do so well," Krier said. "Why should you expect a second, third or fourth to do better than the previous one? This shows sequels can work."
Yes and no. "Speed 2: Cruise Control" followed a huge hit but in its second week has fallen to the fifth spot on the weekend's Top 10 list with a gross of $7.2 million, for a total of $30.7 million.
Other films in the Top 10 were "Con Air," in third, at $10.2 million; "Lost World," $8 million; "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery," $1.4 million; "Gone Fishin'," $1.2 million; "Addicted to Love" and "The Fifth Element," $900,000; and "Buddy," $820,000.
"Hercules," Krier noted, has grossed $1.45 million in two weeks on one screen in New York and one in Chicago. It opens at the El Capitan in Hollywood on Wednesday and in general release on Friday.
This weekend's figures are estimates; final numbers will be released today.