'Harry Potter' pic should fetch princely sum

Sixth film in the franchise has 3,000 midnight performances

Talk about performance anxiety.

If ever there was a film release almost certain to turn a tidy profit, it would be any Harry Potter movie, and Warner Bros. execs can rest assured that Wednesday's debut of the franchise's sixth pic will pile the grosses high through Sunday. But to understand just how fervently studio insiders will be hoping for a full-blooded bow by "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," consider that this time last year Warners launched a little film called "The Dark Knight" to rather good effect.

No pressure there.

"The reviews are great," Warners domestic distribution president Dan Fellman said with a what-me-worry nonchalance. "I think it's the best Harry Potter picture so far. Certainly, as the cast matures, they keep getting better."

Indeed, things seem to be kicking off nicely, with broad sellouts among 3,000 performances set for 12:01 a.m.

"Potter" pics have carried PG or PG-13 ratings, with "Prince" toting the less-restrictive former designation. As the cast and book-based characters in the pics continue to age, Warners hopes to add new, younger patrons while continuing to draw older fans of the series.

Meanwhile, Warners knows its cash cow of a franchise won't last forever. The studio has split the book series' seventh and final tome into two films: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One," set to open Nov. 19, 2010, and "Part Two," slotted for July 15, 2011.

"Half-Blood Prince" is set for 4,275 U.S. and Canadian locations Wednesday and 50 more beginning Friday, and its screen count runs north of 8,000. A consensus estimate for its first five days in domestic release has it pulling in $140 million or more, with about $100 million of that sum likely to be rung up during the Friday-Sunday span.

Previous Potter pics have posted domestic cumes ranging upward from the $249.5 million fetched by 2004's "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," with 2001 franchise launcher "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" enjoying a still-best domestic campaign of $317.6 million.

The most recent release, 2007's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," registered $292 million domestically and another $646.2 million internationally. "Phoenix" fetched $44 million on its first day and $139.7 million during its first five days, but there is broad consensus that "Prince" can best those numbers.

"I think they're beatable," Fellman said. "Ticket prices have gone up, and the last time we had the first 'Transformers' opening just five days before us."

That pic's sequel, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," enters its fourth frame this weekend. No other film opens wide domestically this session, and the most prominent second-weekend holdover -- Universal's R-rated comedy "Bruno" -- couldn't have a more distinct target audience than "Prince."

The new Potter pic has a clear playing field until July 24, when Disney opens the likely young-skewing 3D action comedy "G-Force," a live action/animation mix produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, and Warners debuts its horror film "The Orphan."

Still, there will be no getting away from those batty comparisons: "Dark Knight" fetched $158 million during its first weekend and $533 million overall domestically. The chances of "Prince" matching that are slim to none.

But it would unfair to think of the "Potter" sequel as a lesser studio asset. After all, Warners moved back its release from November to give the studio a sure moneymaker this summer, when corporate parent Time Warner will be tested by year-over-year comparisons with Batman-swollen income.

Among other early evidence that the strategy is working, online ticketers Fandango and MovieTickets report that thousands of "Prince" performances already have sold out via advance ticket purchases. Carmike Cinemas is among the circuits seeking to fuel such frenzy, programming previous Potter pics back-to-back in a Harry Potter Movie Marathon leading to the first "Prince" showtimes.

"Prince" also bows this week in 85 foreign territories, with Wednesday's openings in the U.K. and Japan always key in any Potter bow.

"We're looking forward to another really significant success," Warners international distribution president Veronika Kwan-Rubinek said, allowing a chuckle at the clear understatement. "It's going to be the widest day-and-date release and the biggest Imax release we've had."

Domestically, "Prince" will play in just three Imax venues -- one each in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- until more of the specialty screens are freed up in two weeks. But an impressive 57 international Imax venues are set to open the pic this week.