Welcome back, Potter: $12 mil midnight bow

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In his fifth film outing, Harry Potter continues to cast a boxoffice spell.

Warner Bros. Pictures lifted the curtains on "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" at midnight screenings early Wednesday in 2,311 theaters in North America, and muggle moviegoers rushed the multiplexes at the witching hour, dropping an estimated $12 million.

Internationally, "Phoenix" was just as potent, conjuring first-day returns of $13.7 million from France and eight Pacific and Asian territories, including Australia.

"Phoenix's" domestic tally for its midnight engagements surpassed the previous record holder for midnight screenings scheduled as part of a Wednesday opening, which had been held by New Line Cinema's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," which picked up $8 million from night owls when it bowed in 2003.

"King" went on to a first-day gross of $34.5 million, including previews, a number that "Phoenix" could surpass because it's playing in 4,285 theaters, the widest opening ever for a Warners film. In fact, it could end up challenging the top Wednesday opening-film of all time, Sony Pictures' "Spider-Man 2," which bowed to a first-day $40.4 million in 2004.

"Phoenix's" $12 million fell short of the $16.5 million in midnight-screening money that 20th Century Fox's "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" grossed at midnight screenings on the Thursday it opened in 2005. But it handily topped the $8.8 million that Paramount/DreamWorks' "Transformers" captured just last week when it hit theaters with evening screenings that began on a Monday at 8 p.m.

That "Phoenix" attracted such an eager audience at midnight suggested to one Warners exec that "the movie's fans have aged with the books, going from middle school to high school, and now they're driving themselves."

On the international front, "Phoenix" was the No. 1 film for the day everywhere it opened and was the biggest "Potter" opening ever in France, Australia, Korea, New Zealand, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Malaysia.

In Australia, the film, directed by David Yates and adapted from the J.K. Rowling book, grossed $3 million, representing 386,000 admissions from 500 prints, making it at least the fifth-biggest opening day in that country.

In France, the movie grossed $5.9 million, with 950 prints attracting 720,000 admissions. In addition to being the biggest "Potter" opening in that country, it was the third-highest industry opening day of all time.

Warners expects to announce today the complete Wednesday tally for all markets, including Germany, Italy, Spain and Brazil as well as the North American opening-day figure.
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