Midnight showings rake in $16.5 mil

“Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” marched toward the record books early Thursday morning, with 20th Century Fox estimating the first shows after midnight alone grossed $16.5 million.

“Midnight shows sold out everywhere,” said Fox distrib prexy Bruce Snyder. “Exhibition did an amazing job at maximizing the gross last night.”

Approximately 2,900 of the 3,661 theaters where “Sith” is opening had shows after midnight Thursday.

The $16.5 million figure is for just the first shows of the night, and does not include any second — or in some cases third — presentations held by some theaters in the early dawn hours.

“Sith’s” midnight gross is nearly three times the $6.2 million “Attack of the Clones” made in its first latenight shows.

Some theaters, Snyder said, actually played the pic in more auditoriums than they had actual prints by using a technique known as “interlocking,” where theaters literally run film from one auditorium to another.

Fox will announce a full opening day tally later today. The huge midnight grosses give it a big start on topping the $44.8 million single-day box office, set by “Shrek 2.” The “Shrek 2″ record came on a Saturday rather than a weekday.

The biggest opening day title is claimed by “The Matrix Reloaded” with $42.5 million, also on a Thursday. However, some of its shows started Wednesday before midnight.

Internationally, midnight showings in Mexico generated $5.3 million Thursday while German midnight showings totaled $2.9 million from more than 1,100 screens.

“Sith” also posted impressive numbers in the three markets where it opened Wednesday: France, Belgium and French-speaking Switzerland.

In France, “Sith” topped the 576,544 tickets sold on the 2003 launch day of “The Matrix Reloaded.”

In Belgium, “Sith” set a one-day record with $452,000 at 99 playdates. In French Switzerland, it grossed $393,000 at 36 sites in one of the territory’s biggest launches.

Records for midnight shows are tough to pin down because studios do not as a rule break out the grosses for just the first show of the day.

Still, a $16.5 million gross for midnight “Sith” shows would be an unprecedented amount of biz.

For “Reloaded,” Warner Bros. reported that it grossed more than $10 million from its late-Wednesday and early-Thursday shows in May 2003.

On “Sith,” midnight shows had begun selling out weeks ago, prompting exhibs to play more of their prints and add second and even third shows later in the morning.

The ArcLight in L.A., for instance, sold out nine midnight shows: the first at 12:01, two at 12:05, then 12:10, 12:15, 12:20, 12:21, 12:30, 12:40. It then sold out a 3:30 and a 6:30 show.

Ticket sales sites said biz continued to grow Thursday, with Movietickets.com reporting it was selling five “Sith” tickets per second and competitor Fandango.com saying it was moving six a second.

Fandango also noted that it had sold more tickets to “Sith” before the film’s opening than it had tickets to “Attack of the Clones” during that film’s entire opening weekend.

In part, execs with the company said, the record-setting online sales for “Sith” reflect the growth of the service over the last three years. A survey by Feedback Research found that 46% of those planning to see the film said they planned to buy their tickets online.

For the most part, competing distribs got out of the way of “Star Wars.” All of the frame’s other new titles are in limited release. Warner Bros. will release “Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist,” the Paul Schrader-helmed contribution to the “Exorcist” franchise that was ultimately shelved, on 110 screens.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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