Los Angeles - Warner Bros movie The Dark Knight Rises is expected to do big business when it hurtles into theatres this weekend, 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 $12bn 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.
The Dark Knight Rises will be the last of the Batman series that began in 2005, says director Christopher Nolan.
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 $1.3bn 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 The Hobbit movies to rekindle the magic of The Lord of the Rings, the first of which hits theatres 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 with The Avengers. The movie that brought together a handful of Marvel superheroes has already generated nearly $1.5bn in worldwide sales.
One problem for Warner Bros is that not every DC Comics character has been a oversized hit, Pandya said.
Last summer's Green Lantern didn't work very well, he said, grossing $219.8m. Some industry watchers said the movie cost $200m to produce, though Warner has disputed that figure. Studios receive about half of box office sales.
Pull off a massive performance
The 2006 Superman Returns also disappointed, Pandya said.
The aim is to create another series like Batman, which won critical acclaim, fan devotion and $1.4bn in ticket sales for Batman Begins in 2005 and 2008's The Dark Knight.
Opening weekend ticket sales for The Dark Knight Rises, which cost $250m to produce, should at least match the last Batman film, according to box office forecasters.
That film grabbed $158m 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 $198m, just shy of the $207m record set by The Avengers in May, some industry analysts say.
Even with a big haul for the 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 The 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 theatres next summer, the next instalment in the adult comedy series that has grossed $1bn.
"We are well on the road to quite a number of franchises," said Dan Fellman, president of theatrical distribution for Warner Bros. "We are in great shape."
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