“The Dark Knight,” the newest entry in highly successful Batman franchise, obliterated the competition for the top movie over the weekend ending July 20, and set records along the way. The film, which marks the final screen appearance by the late Heath Ledger, raked in an estimated $155.3 million for the weekend, making it the highest-grossing three-day weekend debut in movie history. The previous record was held by last year’s “Spider-Man 3,” which took in $151.1 million in its opening weekend, according to movie industry sources.

While 2005’s “Batman Begins” was a hit and generated interest in a sequel, grossing a total of $205 million during its entire domestic run, the success of “The Dark Knight” is clearly being attributed to Ledger’s scene-stealing turn as The Joker, a performance that is garnering considerable buzz for an Oscar nomination. Ledger died in January of an accidental prescription drug overdose, and he was already considered one of the better screen actors of his generation for several roles including his Oscar-nominated performance in “Brokeback Mountain.”

He has received lavish praise for his take on The Joker, and the performance helped the film also generate the highest single-day gross (Friday night’s $66.4 million), and the highest debut on larger format IMAX screens, with an estimated $6.4 million. “The Dark Knight” reportedly cost more than $180 million to make, and it will likely end up as one of the top 10 grossing films of all time, if not one of the top 5.

A distant second, but still impressive debut for a musical, was the Meryl Streep/Pierce Brosnan film “Mamma Mia!” which took in an estimated $27.6 million. In third was “Hancock,” which grossed $14 million, bringing its total take to $191.5 million this month. The Brendan Fraser remake of “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” was fourth with $11.9 million, and “Hellboy 2: The Golden Army” came in fifth with $10 million for the weekend.

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According to the New York Times using industry estimates, the top dozen films generated an impressive total of $249.6 million for the weekend, helping to boost what had been slightly slumping ticket sales for the year. To date, movies have generated a total of $5.36 billion for the year so far, less than 2 percent off from 2007, a good sign considering the slowing economy.

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Box Office Grosses
Week Ending July 18, 2008

Rank Title Weekend Total Gross
1 The Dark Knight (2008) $155M $155M
2 Mamma Mia! (2008) $27.6M $27.6M
3 Hancock (2008) $14M $192M
4 Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) $11.9M $43.1M
5 Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) $10M $56.4M
6 WALL•E (2008) $9.81M $182M
7 Space Chimps (2008) $7.35M $7.35M
8 Wanted (2008) $5.1M $123M
9 Get Smart (2008) $4.08M $120M
10 Kung Fu Panda (2008) $1.75M $207M