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‘Return of the King’ Promises Big Box Office Ring
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Movie fans dressed as elves and hobbits lined up hours early on Tuesday for sold-out debut midnight showings of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” as brisk advance ticket orders promised one of the biggest mid-week film openings of all time.
One advance ticket service said that by Tuesday afternoon it was selling three tickets every second.
Bolstered by rave reviews, the third and final chapter in director Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels was set to unspool with some 7,200 prints showing in more than 3,700 North American theaters on Wednesday.
That number — marking the second-widest domestic movie release ever, behind only “X2: X-Men United” in May of this year — includes about 2,000 theaters launching the film with 12:01 a.m. Wednesday screenings.
According to distributor New Line Cinema, a unit of Time Warner Inc., 126 of those venues were participating in a “Tuesday Trilogy” event, playing the first two “Lord of the Rings” installments leading up to the midnight showing of “Return of the King.”
The film also will open on Wednesday in 16 other countries, with worldwide distribution growing to 14,000 screens by the weekend. Thirty-five more countries will be added by February.
Box office analysts said the fantasy adventure should easily gross $25 million to $30 million in first-day North American receipts alone, possibly topping the record mid-week debut of “Star Wars: Episode One — The Phantom Menace.”
The 1999 “Star Wars” prequel posted first-day Wednesday sales of $28.5 million, while the first “Lord of the Rings” sequel, last year’s “The Two Towers,” grossed $26.2 million to rank second among the biggest Wednesday releases ever.
“Return of the King” was not expected to quite reach the lofty heights of “Spider-Man,” which grossed $115 million during its first weekend to hold the record for biggest opening of all time.
One analyst, Robert Bucksbaum of the Web site, projected “Return of the King” would gross $68 million this coming Friday through Sunday, enough to surpass “Two Towers” by $4 million and cement the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy as one of the most successful franchises in movie history.
The first two films have collectively grossed nearly $1.8 billion in worldwide theatrical release to date, according to box office tracker Exhibitor Relations Inc.
Optimism about the film’s blockbuster potential came largely from advance ticket orders, which New Line executives said were running 50 percent higher than for “The Two Towers” one year ago. Likewise, ticket retail service Fandango said it was selling 60 percent more advance seats for “Return of the King” than for “Two Towers” at the same point last year.
“We’re selling about three tickets a second,” said Fandango Inc. CEO Art Levitt, adding, “It’s the single biggest advance-selling movie in Fandango’s history. It’s a phenomenon we never expected to see.”
America’s largest theater chain, Regal Entertainment Group, reported most of its opening-day tickets for “Return of the King” were sold in advance through telephone and Internet outlets, including Tuesday Trilogy showings at 20 locations.
At some multiplexes, with costumed “Lord of the Rings” devotees lining up early, Regal was scrambling to add additional screenings and show times to accommodate the swelling demand, Regal spokeswoman Misty Cunningham told Reuters.
The only factors weighing against the film’s early commercial potential were a movie market crowded with big-budget holiday pictures and a lengthy running time, three hours and 20 minutes, industry experts said.