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‘Pirates’ scores overseas gold

'At World's End' launches worldwide

The buccaneers have started raking in the gold as they look to outpace Spidey with “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” which launches around the world amid sky-high expectations.

The third “Pirates” pic kicked off in nine markets Wednesday, with France generating an impressive $3 million at 783 playdates based on 426,000 first-day admissions. While Sony announced the early overseas numbers for “Spider-Man 3” three weeks ago, Disney’s refusing to release any figures until Saturday.

The French launch is 43% down from the first-day admissions number for “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” on Aug. 2, 2006. But the earlier first-day number — 750,000 — came amid summer holidays in France; pic ended up grossing $46 million in the territory.

Lofty forecasts for the third “Pirates” pic have been goosed by the record-setting numbers woven by “Spider-Man 3” along with the $1.06 billion worldwide gross last year from “Dead Man’s Chest” — joining “Titanic” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” as the only films to crack the billion-dollar mark.

Key question will be whether the third time’s the charm for Disney, as it was for Sony when “Spider-Man 3” set opening records, led by $382 million worldwide. The eye-popping number broke down to $151 million domestically (which broke the “Pirates 2” record by $12 million) and $231 million internationally ($76 million ahead of the mark set by “The Da Vinci Code”).

Domestically, Disney will send its latest “Pirates” voyaging to 4,362 theaters, marking the widest North American opening ever. That figure’s 110 larger than the 4,252 webs into which Spidey swung earlier in the month.

“At World’s End” looks primed to breeze past Fox’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” which racked up $122.8 million last year in the biggest-ever extended Memorial Day weekend bow.

Mouse House is giving its “Pirates” a head start Thursday night with U.S. showtimes beginning at 8 p.m., rather than the usual midnight screenings that would add coin into “Pirates” weekend cume. Disney distribution topper Chuck Viane said the decision to add the Thursday 8 p.m. shows was made to appease the wide range of exhibitors champing at the bit for the pic.

“We got a lot of pressure from exhibitors to do something special,” the exec said. “So this is what we chose because midnight shows are tied into urban centers. This way, any small town theater owner can get in on ‘Pirates’ mania.” Viane added that some theaters will be screening “At World’s End” round the clock beginning Thursday night at 8 p.m. and through Friday’s midnights shows.

Disney brass have been saying that their foremost goal is to beat out last year’s “X-Men” pic and post the biggest ever Memorial Day haul. It remains to be seen whether the new “Pirates” can surpass “Spider-Man 3’s” recent three-day record.

One hurdle in the path to the record books is the pic’s running time: Clocking in at about 165 minutes, “At World’s End” will see fewer runs over the weekend than the relatively short “Shrek.” But the massive screen count for the “Pirates” pic should ease that burden.

Paramount and DreamWorks, meanwhile, will try to battle “Pirates” in their second weekend for “Shrek the Third,” which landed in its first frame as the biggest animated opening of all time, as well as the biggest-ever PG pic and third highest grossing film ever. It had surpassed $144 million domestically as of Wednesday; Par’s held off releasing the third “Shrek” to most international markets until next month.

The “Pirates” voyage should get the summer B.O. on to a torrid pace, with “At World’s End,” “Shrek” and “Spider-Man” occupying the top three slots in the charts this weekend. “Spider-Man 3” should still have some gas in the tank for its fourth frame even though it hit $288 million domestically and $760 million worldwide as of Wednesday.

Away from the big guns, Lionsgate heads into 1,661 theaters with its William Friedkin-directed “Bug.”

Rest of the pics debuting over the weekend are limited releases, including Sony Pictures Classics’ “Angel-A” and “Paprika,” Miramax’s “Golden Door,” IFC’s “Boss of It All” and Truly Indie’s “Steel City.” Fox Searchlight expands its Sundance acquisition “Waitress” to 510 screens.

On the international side, launches are few and far between aside from “Pirates.” Openings include “Borat” in Japan, “History Boys” in Italy, “The Hoax” in the Netherlands and “The Namesake” in Brazil and Spain.

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