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SEQUEL TALLIES FANS LIKE A BAT OUT OF HEAVEN

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Big opening weekends may be crucial to a film's success, yet in the wake of the record-breaking opening of "Batman Returns" - an astonishing $47.7 million - it's worth noting that not every astounding start guarantees a phenomenal finish.

Of the top 10 openers in movie history, only one shows up on the list of top-10 money earners. "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," Hollywood's top-grossing film to date, didn't have a record-breaking opening. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," a high-ranking opener, fell more than $87 million below the 10th-ranked, top-grossing film, the original "Ghostbusters."Still, industry insiders - buoyed by a dazzling first weekend of business - are looking for the "Batman" sequel to perform solidly throughout the summer. If so, "Batman Returns" should join "Batman" on the list of hits that not only opened well, but managed to cross the finish line with a record-setting flourish.

Warner Bros., the company releasing "Batman," wasted no time in trumpeting the picture's early success. In a press release, Warner reported that tickets were sold out for the entire opening day at many theaters.

Industry (and critical) consensus is that "Batman Returns" delivers enough of the goods to keep turnstiles revolving. The picture seems to have transcended even the built-in success factors sequels enjoy at the starting gate, and there's no question studios would rather open big than small.

"The first weekend is very important," says Duane Byrge, box-office analyst for the Hollywood Reporter, a show-business trade publication. "The sensational numbers generated by `Batman Returns' are an indication that the movie is going to be very strong."

Joseph McBride, who reports on box-office trends for Variety, notes that success often breeds success. The more people talk about "Batman," the more people will want to see it. "The opening weekend is important for perceptions. It creates a kind of steamroller effect.

"Of course, there are films that may not have a spectacular opening, but do well in the long run," says McBride. `Fried Green Tomatoes,' for example, started modestly and slowly built an audience. It's now up to $78 million. "Hook" is another example of a film that didn't open well, but performed well overall. Films like `Star Wars' and `E.T.' did well because they hung in there for a long time."

The key to ultimate performance lies in whether viewers enjoy a picture so much they want to see it twice.

"Repeat business is a big factor in being one of the all-time leaders," acknowledges Variety's McBride. "It's difficult to get over the $150 million plateau without a lot of repeat business. The first `Batman' had that. Presumably, the second will, too, but it's too early to tell."

It's not difficult to understand why opening weekends are crucial. A film's advertising and promotional efforts generally peak during the week before opening. Stars can be seen conducting interviews with print and TV journalists, and, in the case of many summer sequels, commercial tie-ins abound.

John Neal, senior vice president of marketing for United Artists, a theater chain headquartered in Englewood, Colo., credits Warner Bros. with skillful handling of its eagerly anticipated sequel. Neal says trailers for the film were wisely calibrated to show more and more of the movie as its June 19 opening neared. He also mentions tie-ins with McDonald's restaurants, promoted in a series of visually dazzling TV commercials.

"By the time the film opened," says Neal, "everyone was standing there like at the starting line of a race."