Company Town: Latest 'Harry Potter' off to a flying box office start

The Harry Potter audience is as huge as ever, and they really love their midnight shows.

" Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1" opened to $125.1 million at the domestic box office and $205 million from nearly every major foreign market, according to an estimate from distributor Warner Bros.

The high-flying debut was among the two biggest of the year, along with "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse." Accounting for ticket price inflation, the U.S. and Canadian receipts were similar to those of 2005's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," the last movie in the series to open on a Friday.

The only significant difference between them was that the new film collected four times as much from shows late Thursday night at (or soon after) midnight. "Deathly Hallows" grossed $24 million domestically before the sun rose on opening day, compared with $6 million for "Goblet of Fire" and $22.2 million for summer 2009's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," which launched on a Wednesday.

After Friday morning, ticket sales for the new "Potter" movie were nearly identical to the 2005 entry, actually representing a decline in attendance when accounting for higher ticket prices and because significantly more people saw "Deathly Hallows' on premium-priced Imax screens.

That reflects changing moviegoing habits, because it has become increasingly common in the past five years for moviegoers to see a film as early as possible, noted Warner domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman.

It also shows the changing demographics of the Potter audience, because more fans are now old enough to see the movie late at night rather than in a matinee. About 25% of the audience for "Deathly Hallows" was between 18 and 35, compared with 10% for "Goblet of Fire."

"Moviegoing trends have changed dramatically as more and more people get caught up in the frenzy that builds up to midnight shows," Fellman said. "Now each 'Harry Potter' sequel is a cultural event."

With the films' plots now becoming so dense that it's difficult for newcomers to jump on board, Warner's huge marketing campaign seemed designed to ensure that the consistent but huge audience of fans knew a seventh movie was coming out this weekend.

That they did demonstrates that the studio's decision to split the "Deathly Hallows" book into two films was a lucrative one. The six previous Potter movies have already earned Warner more than $1 billion in profits, and the last two are poised to add hundreds of millions more to the coffers, despite their hefty costs. "Potter" movies have recently cost about $250 million to produce and an additional $150 million-plus for prints and advertising.

Overseas, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" opened in every country that regularly plays American films except France and South Korea. The most successful included Britain, where it raked in $28 million; Germany, with $21.8 million; Australia, with $14.8 million; Japan, $14 million; Russia, $12.3 million; Italy, with $11.5 million; and Mexico, $10.2 million.

In China, it had an estimated opening of $9 million, slightly behind the $9.5-million debut of "Resident Evil: Afterlife," which had the advantage of playing in 3-D.

The new "Harry Potter" movie is almost assured of being No. 1 again next weekend, even though four new films will open for the Thanksgiving holiday, as it heads toward more than $300 million domestically and $600 million internationally. It will likely match or slightly exceed the $934 million worldwide box office total of 2009's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." The only question is whether it can top the $975 million worldwide total of 2001's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the first movie in the series and still its best box-office performer.

The weekend was also a bonanza for large format and digital Imax screens, which accounted for $12.4 million of domestic ticket sales for "Deathly Hallows" and $4.2 million overseas. That's a new high for Imax on a single weekend.

Among returning pictures, the low-budget science-fiction film "Skyline" took a tumble, dropping 71% on its second weekend to $3.4 million. That's the second-largest drop for any movie this year, behind only this summer's "Predators." The Denzel Washington- Chris Pine thriller "Unstoppable" enjoyed a relatively modest decline of only 42% to $13.1 million on its second weekend, demonstrating that word-of-mouth is solid.

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