The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King raked in an estimated $34.1 million domestically on 7,205 screens at 3,703 theaters on its opening day, according to distributor New Line Cinema.
In the process, the finale of the Tolkien trilogy took home the all time Wednesday record that Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace had held since May 19, 1999, even when ticket price inflation is taken into account. The Phantom Menace attracted $28.5 million on 5,500 screens at 2,970 theaters on its first day, which would adjust to around $33.9 million today. Though Return had the advantage in theaters, that was countered by a disadvantage in showtimes thanks to its 200 minute running time compared to Phantom Menace's 133 minutes.
Among all opening days, Return of the King's $34.1 million ranks third behind Spider-Man's $39.4 million and The Matrix Reloaded's $37.5 million, but ahead of the first Harry Potter's $32.3 million.
The Two Towers rang up $26.2 million on 6,633 screens at 3,622 theaters for its Wednesday debut and The Fellowship of the Ring garnered $18.2 million on 5,700 screens at 3,359 theaters.
The special midnight launch at 2,100 theaters accounted for around $8 million of Return of the King's Wednesday haul. That was double the $4 million that The Two Towers and The Fellowship of the Ring each reaped from their midnight showings.
Return of the King is well poised to power past Two Towers's December opening weekend record of $62.0 million, just as Two Towers had eclipsed previous December champ Fellowship's $47.2 million.
Fellowship's opening day represented 24.2% of the $75.1 million it made in its first five days, while Two Towers' was 25.7% of its $102.0 million five-day start. Should Return follow a similar pattern, it's in store for a $74 million opening weekend and a $125 million total by Sunday.
Ultimately, Two Towers became the first sequel to an uber-blockbuster ($250 million plus) to out-gross its predecessor, $339.8 million to $313.4 million. Return of the King could become the second.
Raising the one-day worldwide tally to $57.6 million, Return of the King pulled in $23.5 million overseas from 19 countries, notching opening day records in 13 of them, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Scandinavia, New Line noted. The U.K. accounted for $5.2 million of that sum, Germany contributed $5 million and France $3 million. The Two Towers posted $15.58 million from 14 territories in its overseas debut, and Fellowship $11.3 million.
By the end of their overseas runs, Two Towers had amassed $580.7 million and Fellowship $552.9 million. All told, the two movies grossed nearly $1.8 billion in theaters worldwide. With the advent of Return of the King, New Line hopes to add another $1 billion to the franchise's coffers.
NOTE: Actual domestic numbers for Return of the King's Wednesday and Thursday grosses will be posted here on Friday. Actual overseas stats will be available next week. It's a lot of money to count so we have to give New Line some time.
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