The Dark Knight started the premium screen revolution

Photo: The Dark Knight.. Image Courtesy Warner Bros. / DC Universe
Photo: The Dark Knight.. Image Courtesy Warner Bros. / DC Universe /

The Dark Knight was one of the first movies where a premium screen became the definitive way to experience a blockbuster

In 2008 The Dark Knight was released, broke records, and solidified its place in cinema history. Not much more can be said about how impactful Christopher Nolan’s superhero trilogy has become.

With Batman Day recently celebrating more than 80 years of the caped crusader, Warner Bros did a limited release of The Dark Knight trilogy. It was a very limited re-release though which disappointed fans who wanted to experience the film in IMAX. It was a good way to re-experience the films that can be attributed to starting the demand for premium screens like IMAX and everything else that followed.

Before 2008, IMAX was a niche format to watch films in. It was mostly known to just be in museums for nature/science documentaries. If there was a feature film to be shown in IMAX, it wasn’t very accessible for most people.

Nolan shot scenes with IMAX cameras that would fill up the giant screen during the film’s iconic set pieces, making it the first motion picture to do that. When the film was released, there were only 94 locations that played the film in the premium format. It was more expensive than a regular ticket, but it grossed $65 million from those limited locations, so it was worth it for a lot of people.

The enthusiasm for IMAX was strong once The Dark Knight had its success, with filmmakers wanting to use it, and IMAX expanding its locations around the world.

A year later James Cameron’s Avatar lights up the world, not only because of 3D, but also because of IMAX. Avatar still has the highest-grossing IMAX ticket sales, with well over $200 million just from IMAX screens around the world.

The Dark Knight’s initial success with IMAX allowed the expansion of the premium format which helped Avatar reach all-time heights. Since then competing formats have come out of the woodwork like Dolby, 4dx, ScreenX, RPX, etc. that promise a more immersive experience than the average screen.

Fast forward to 2023, and Nolan solidified himself with Oppenheimer’s IMAX dominance this past summer. Due to Nolan’s relationship with IMAX and his commitment to the format, pretty much every single large format screen just played Oppenheimer for weeks on end, with a lot of the 70mm ones playing it well into September. Oppenheimer’s release alongside Barbie fever (Barbenheimer) essentially cut the legs out of many summer film’s box office aspirations.

Tom Cruise famously tried to extend the premium screen run of his latest Mission Impossible film, but IMAX screens went to Nolan and if a premium screen wasn’t playing Oppenheimer, it was playing Barbie. 

Oppenheimer has reached over $900 million with a billion on the horizon, making it the fifth highest-grossing IMAX film ever.  A 3-hour R-rated biopic doing those numbers is insane, solidifying the power of Christopher Nolan and IMAX.

This hunger for premium screens from consumers and the studios’ cutthroat scheduling of them is at an all-time high. The future of theatrical film going has been in question since the pandemic, but there will always be a demand to experience the latest anticipated wide release in the biggest and loudest screen possible. Who knows if the demand would be there if The Dark Knight release experiment didn’t work.

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