UPDATE 1-Batman breaks Spider-Man record at box office

(New throughout, adds byline)

LOS ANGELES, July 20 (Reuters) - KAPOW!

The new Batman movie “The Dark Knight” smashed the weekend record set by “Spider-Man 3” last year, selling an estimated $155.3 million worth of tickets during its first three days of release across the United States and Canada, distributor Warner Bros. Pictures said on Sunday.

The hotly anticipated film, co-starring late actor Heath Ledger as the anarchic Joker, surpassed the $151.1 million haul for “Spider-Man 3” during its first weekend in May 2007.

Going into the weekend, pundits had forecast an opening in the $100 million range, evidently underestimating the Batmania infecting movie fans across the world.

The Caped Crusader also generated $40 million from 20 foreign markets, highlighted by No. 1 bows in Ledger's native Australia ($13.1 million) and Mexico ($6.6 million), the Time Warner Inc TWX.N-owned studio said.

With a little help from another new release “Mamma Mia!” which opened at No. 2 with $27.6 million, “The Dark Knight” propelled overall North American ticket sales to a record $253 million, according to tracking firm Media By Numbers. The old mark of $218 million was set two years ago, the company said.

“The Dark Knight” stars Welsh actor Christian Bale as Batman, and was directed by English filmmaker Christopher Nolan. They previously collaborated on “Batman Begins,” which earned $48.7 million during its first weekend in 2005, and finished up with $205 million.

“Dark Knight” should hit that level by midweek, Warner Bros. said.

The new film reportedly cost about $180 million to make, thanks in part to the pioneering use of heavy Imax cameras to shoot 30 minutes of the 152-minute film for giant-screen theaters. The filmmakers also blew up bits of Chicago, which doubles for the fictional Gotham City.


But it is Ledger’s performance as the Joker, a role last taken on by Jack Nicholson for 1989’s “Batman,” that has generated the most buzz. It was the 28-year-old actor’s last completed role before he died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs in January.

Many pundits have already declared that he is a shoo-in to receive an Oscar nomination for his creepy turn as the bane of Batman’s existence.

Tickets for many weekend screenings sold out long ago, and moviegoers -- some dressed as characters from the movie -- had to wait hours in long lines to get inside once the film opened just after midnight on Friday. Some theaters added 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. screenings that day to help meet demand.

A huge portion of the 94 Imax Corp IMAX.OIMX.TO theaters screening "The Dark Knight" are already sold out for the week and next weekend, said Greg Foster, chairman and president of the firm's filmed entertainment division.

The Imax theaters contributed a record $6.2 million to the weekend tally, breaking the old mark of $4.7 million for “Spider-Man 3,” he added.

Meanwhile, the $27.6 million for “Mamma Mia!” ranks as the biggest for a musical, said distributor Universal Pictures. The romantic comedy, inspired by the pop tunes of Swedish pop group ABBA, stars Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, who also try their hand at singing.

The General Electric Co GE.N-owned studio said women accounted for three-quarters of the audience, and almost two-thirds of patrons were aged 30 and older.

The film earned $26.8 million from 21 foreign markets, taking its international total to $72.6 million. It logged a second weekend at No. 1 in Sweden, slipped to No. 2 in Australia and Britain, and opened at No. 1 in Germany, the studio said. (Additional reporting by Maureen Bavdek; Editing by Xavier Briand)