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'Deathly Hallows' a sure bet to reign at box office

Ben Fritz
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — This weekend's box-office race should be over by 12:01 a.m. on Friday.

Warner Bros.' hugely anticipated "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1" has already sold out more than 3,900 midnight screenings Thursday night and will quite possibly surpass the midnight ticket sales record of more than $30 million set in June by "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse."

In any event, the seventh "Harry Potter" movie is assured the No. 1 spot at the weekend box office. People who have seen pre-release audience surveys said it's likely to gross at least $120 million in the U.S. and Canada from Friday through Sunday and even has a shot at breaking the all-time opening weekend record, not accounting for inflation, of $158.4 million set by Warner Bros.' Batman movie "The Dark Knight" in 2008.

It is almost certain to enjoy the biggest weekend opening for any "Harry Potter" film. The previous high mark of $103 million was set by 2005's "Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire"; however, the 2007 and 2009 sequels opened on Wednesdays in summer, making comparisons difficult.

The last three "Harry Potter" films have all ultimately grossed about $300 million domestically and about $650 million internationally, and "Deathly Hallows" will likely do the same. Given that audiences increasingly want to see "Potter" films as soon as they open, ticket sales for the films have become more front-loaded.

The latest installment will get a boost toward continuing that trend by opening on 239 digital and large-format Imax screens, which carry higher ticket prices. Last year's Harry Potter sequel "Half-Blood Prince" opened at only three Imax theaters, as most at the time were still playing "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." Already Imax theaters have sold out virtually every seat for midnight screenings of "Deathly Hallows.".

In total, online ticket sellers Fandango and MovieTickets.com have together sold out more than 5,200 screenings for the weekend. "Deathly Hallows" is the No. 3 pre-seller of all time on Fandango and No. 4 on MovieTickets.com.

The film's reviews have been mostly positive, but not unanimously so.

It is also opening simultaneously in every major foreign country except France and South Korea and should collect more than $200 million overseas by Sunday. "Half-Blood Prince" grossed $237 million from international markets on its first weekend, a mark that "Deathly Hallows" will quite possibly beat.

That should make it extremely profitable for Warner Bros., despite the movie's high cost. The last "Potter" movie cost $250 million to produce and the new one likely carried a similar price tag, though costs may have been mitigated a bit because it and next summer's "Deathly Hallows — Part 2" were shot together. Marketing and producing film prints for a worldwide event movie like "Harry Potter" typically cost about $150 million.

Profitability is far less certain for the only movie bold enough to open against the boy wizard, the Russell Crowe thriller "The Next Three Days." The Lionsgate production is tracking for a weak opening of less than $10 million, meaning it will need to generate very strong word-of-mouth and keep selling tickets for the next several weeks to become a hit. Reviews for the film, which is most appealing to adult men according to pre-release surveys, have been mixed.

Lionsgate spent about $35 million to make the movie, which was co-written and directed by Paul Haggis of "Crash" fame, and another $28 million to market it. The studio has already made about $25 million of its investment back by selling overseas distribution rights, minimizing its financial exposure in the domestic market.

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