Pic makes unprecedented late night haul

This article was updated at 7:02 p.m.

If early box office returns are any indication, New Line’s latest installment in mega-franchise “The Lord of the Rings” just may grab the ultimate brass ring.

Distrib hopes “Return of the King” can eventually surpass $1 billion in worldwide B.O. That would make the trilogy-capping fantasy the first film to manage such a feat since 1997’s “Titanic” amassed a record $1.83 billion.

Full first-day data on the “King” launch won’t be available until today. But broad sellouts among 2,100 midnight Tuesday showings of the fantasy bolstered execs’ confidence.

In fact, “King” rang up an estimated $8 million domestically from those witching-hour shows alone — an unprecedented midnight haul. Wednesday matinees in 3,703 domestic locations were also performing superbly.

“We’re having sellouts all over the place,” New Line domestic distrib prexy David Tuckerman said. “We’ve been getting calls from some exhibitors who have run the movie around the clock as kind of a stunt. One exhibitor told us, ‘I had 250 people here at 4 a.m. — what’s going on?’ “

Int’l excitement

Whatever was going on, the phenomenon appeared to be taking hold in international territories as well.

“In the foreign markets, we’re beating every record in the book,” enthused Rolf Mittweg, New Line prexy of worldwide marketing and distribution. “They’re unbelievable.”

Only a handful of the 16 foreign territories bowing “King” on Wednesday offered Tuesday midnight showtimes, including exhibs in Germany, Denmark and Belgium. But those foreign midnight screens reaped an estimated $4.5 million, meaning New Line saw $12.5 million in worldwide witching-hour coin.

Previous “Rings” pics have registered more B.O. from foreign markets than domestic, a trend expected to continue with the final installment. The original “Rings” outgrossed even “Titanic” in New Zealand — where the films were shot — and Denmark.

“The Danes think Tolkien wrote the books about them,” Mittweg noted.

Gathering momentum

New Line has been saying that the pent-up anticipation for the final installment in the ultra-successful series of lit adaptations would march “King” north of the $866 million and $921 million in worldwide B.O. amassed by the first and second “Rings” pics, respectively (Daily Variety, Dec. 16). Homevid viewing of the first two pics broadened the fan base for the series, execs noted, and the mere fact “King” is a franchise-capping installment should further stoke moviegoers’ enthusiasm.

Still, it will bear watching how the pic fares this weekend in gauging its chances of hitting B.O. territory beyond $1 billion.

The rabid fan base for the fantasy franchise could burn off quickly, making it vital that the film sustain truly broader support and prompt return viewing by core constituents over future frames. Task is complicated by the crowded marketplace, with multiplexes chock-a-block with attractive pics this holiday season due to an accelerated Academy Award sked.

Triple bill

New Line boosted fervor for the midnight showtimes on “King” by staging a “Trilogy Tuesday” event at 126 U.S. and Canadian theaters. Exhibs offered showings of the first two “Rings” pics prior to midnight presentations of “King.”

“Trilogy Tuesday was really done for the fans,” Tuckerman said. “It’s been sold out for months.”

In Portland, Ore., one couple exchanged marriage vows while waiting in line for a midnight showing of “King.” In Utah, fans starting queuing more than a day early, on Monday.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more