LOS ANGELES – Warner Bros. movie “The Dark Knight Rises” is the last installment in the Batman trilogy by director Christopher Nolan, ending an era for one of Hollywood’s most-enduring franchises.
For the studio’s executives, it’s also a superhero-sized challenge to find a new movie franchise capable of wearing Batman’s cape.
The Time Warner-owned studio has been Hollywood’s King of Franchises for years. In the last decade, it generated worldwide ticket sales of $12 billion from its “Lord of the Rings,” “Batman,” and “Harry Potter” films.
Eight of the 20 highest-grossing films of all time come from one of those franchises, according to website Box Office Mojo.
“Harry Potter,” Warner Bros.’s biggest franchise, ended last summer with the largest of eight films, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2,” that generated $1.3 billion worldwide.
Franchise films are especially important to studios, who use the big-budget films to create theme park rides, sell toys and spawn TV shows.
Warner Brothers is counting on a pair of “Hobbit” movies to rekindle the magic of “Lord of the Rings”, the first of which hits theaters in December.
A reboot of the “Superman” franchise is also scheduled for next summer, “Man of Steel,” that is being made by “Dark Knight” producer Legendary Pictures. Nolan, one of Hollywood’s hottest directors, is a producer on that film.
The films could pave the way for Warner to unite Batman, Superman and other characters from its DC Comics stable in a “Justice League” movie, said Gitesh Pandya, editor of website Box Office Guru.
That would follow the strategy that brought staggering success to Walt Disney Co with “The Avengers.” The movie that brought together a handful of Marvel superheroes has already generated nearly $1.5 billion in worldwide sales.
One problem for Warner Bros. is that not every DC Comics character has been an oversized hit, Pandya said.
Last summer’s “Green Lantern” didn’t work very well, he said, grossing $219.8 million. Some industry watchers said the movie cost $200 million to produce, though Warner has disputed that figure. Studios receive about half of box office sales.
The 2006 “Superman Returns” also disappointed, Pandya said.
The aim is to create another series like Batman, which won critical acclaim, fan devotion and $1.4 billion in ticket sales for “Batman Begins” in 2005 and 2008′s “The Dark Knight.”
Opening weekend ticket sales for “Dark Knight Rises,” which cost $250 million to produce, should at least match the last Batman film, according to box office forecasters, notwithstanding the pall cast by the deadly shooting rampage at a Thursday midnight screening in Aurora, Colorado.
“The Dark Knight” grabbed $158 million in the United States and Canada, a record at the time and still the highest debut for a movie that wasn’t boosted by higher-priced 3D tickets.
Weekend sales could reach as high as $198 million, just shy of the $207 million record set by “Avengers” in May, some industry analysts say.
Even with a big haul for the “Dark Knight” films, “you need the secondary characters” beyond the well-known Superman and Batman, to pull off a massive performance like “The Avengers,” said Evercore Partners analyst Alan Gould.
Marvel Studios, now owned by Disney, executed a nearly-flawless multi-year plan to stir excitement for the characters that united in “Avengers,” Box Office Guru’s Pandya said. Two “Iron Man” movies built a following for that character, and “Thor” and “Captain America” starred in their own films.
Beyond superheroes and the “Hobbit,” Warner also intends to bring “The Hangover 3″ to theaters next summer, the next installment in the adult comedy series that has grossed $1 billion.
“We are well on the road to quite a number of franchises,” Dan Fellman, president of theatrical distribution for Warner Bros, said before the Colorado shooting took place. “We are in great shape.”