'Avatar' grosses $3.5 mil since midnight

First-weekend haul expected to exceed $80 mil

Update: 'Avatar' grosses nearly $27 mil Friday

"Avatar" is off and running. James Cameron's epic sci-fi actioner rang up an estimated $3.5 million in domestic boxoffice from 12:01 a.m. Friday performances.

Toting a running time of more than 2 1/2 hours, "Avatar" unspooled in a mix of 3D and 2D venues amid mostly positive reviews and broad expectations of a first-weekend haul exceeding $80 million. Though nowhere near any records, the solid witching-hour coin will help keep the Fox release on track as it strives to reach that sort of rarefied range.

The current record-holder for midnight openings, Summit Entertainment's "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," grossed $26.3 million in its opening night last month. But the "Twilight" sequel was a fan-driven movie more apt to register a big midnight sum.

"Avatar" -- which until the Summit pic was not based on a book but an original concept and screenplay -- was never likely to set a midnight record.

On the other hand, Fox domestic distribution president Bruce Snyder said Friday matinees grosses were "exploding" on "Avatar."

"That tells me this is going to be a real moviegoers' picture, not just a movie for the fans," Snyder said.

"Avatar" played on about 2,000 mostly 3D screens for its earliest showtimes but will boast about 3,000 3D screens the rest of the weekend and an equal number of 2D auditoriums. Its domestic theater count is more than 3,400.

Fox is also opening the pic -- produced in a mix of motion-capture animation and live-action -- in most foreign territories this week but won't release any estimates of its international boxoffice until Sunday. "Avatar" bows in Japan on Wednesday, in China on Jan. 2 and in Italy on Jan. 15.

Sony has this weekend's only other domestic wide release, the romantic comedy "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" Starring Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker, "Morgans" may get to $10 million through Sunday.