By Ben Fritz / The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — The latest “Twilight” movie eclipsed the record for midnight ticket sales Tuesday night with more than $30 million, setting itself up for explosive box-office returns over the Fourth of July weekend.
“The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” the third film based on Stephanie Meyer’s bestselling vampire romance novels, upstaged the midnight show record in the U.S. and Canada of $26.3 million set in November by the previous “Twilight” film, “New Moon.”
Studio executives are hoping that the hot start for “Eclipse” will not only generate fireworks for the holiday weekend but give a much-needed overall boost to the summer box office. Total ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada since early May — the beginning of summer blockbuster movie season — are down 5 percent, according to Hollywood.com. Accounting for ticket price increases, the number of people going to the movies has fallen nearly 11 percent.
Some of the movies that have underperformed domestically, such as Walt Disney Studios’ “Prince of Persia” and Universal Pictures’ “Robin Hood,” have fared better overseas. But the U.S. has always been the largest single market for Hollywood movies and summer the most lucrative time of year, making the ongoing slump a big deal.
“I think the July 4 weekend is going to be a great one and help to salvage the summer,” said Barton Crockett, a media analyst at Lazard Capital Markets. “If ‘Twilight’ doesn’t do great this weekend, it’s a very bad omen.”
People who have seen pre-release polling say that “Eclipse” is likely to generate about $180 million between now and Monday, when most Americans are off from work. That’s the same total that “New Moon” grossed domestically in its first six days, reflecting conventional wisdom in Hollywood that the size of the “Twilight” audience, primarily women and particularly younger ones, has stayed constant between the two movies. When the original “Twilight” was released in 2008, it was a surprise hit, grossing $193 million at the domestic box office.
Some in Hollywood think that “Eclipse” could generate as much as $200 million by Monday although precise estimates become difficult for movies when they gross more than $100 million. The film has an advantage over “New Moon” given that students are on summer vacation and can attend weekday matinees. It also is the first “Twilight” movie to play on premium-priced Imax screens.
One thing that’s certain is that receipts for “Eclipse” will be front-loaded, with most of the film’s revenue generated in the first week.
“It’s a compressed period during which we expect to do a whole bunch of business,” said Richard Fay, domestic distribution president for Summit Entertainment, the studio behind the “Twilight” franchise.
It remains to be seen, however, whether “Eclipse” will outperform the $297 million total gross of “New Moon.” Regardless, Summit will make a large profit on the movie, which cost about $68 million to produce and tens of millions more to market.
The majority of the film’s revenue should come from overseas markets, where “New Moon” grossed $413 million and Summit has pre-sold the film to local distributors in many markets. “Eclipse” debuts in 42 foreign territories this weekend, including several of the most lucrative for “New Moon,” such as Mexico, Italy, Australia and Spain.
The only other new movie opening this weekend is director M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender,” a live-action adaptation of the Nickelodeon animated television series that debuts Thursday. It is generating interest among males and is poised to collect a good but not great $50 million by Monday. Boys familiar with the anime-inspired cartoon will be the movie’s core audience, but older men who are fans of Shyamalan’s previous films, including “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs,” could turn out as well.
“Last Airbender” is the biggest bet of the summer for Paramount Pictures, which spent about $150 million to produce the picture, including its last-minute conversion to 3-D.
“Airbender” will play at 1,500 to 1,600 theaters capable of displaying it in 3-D, most of which will be shared with “Toy Story 3.” Because the Pixar animated film has been out for only two weeks and has racked up more than $235 million in that short amount of time, Paramount wasn’t about to steal away most of the roughly 900 theaters that have been playing “Toy Story” on a single 3-D screen.
Even if “Airbender” grosses $50 million by Monday, it would still need to play well for several weeks to become a hit for Paramount.
“Airbender” could also do very well internationally given its multi-ethnic cast and Asian influences, though it doesn’t start opening in foreign countries until next week.
With the wide-appeal hit “Toy Story 3″ still doing solid business and the studios behind the more adult-leaning “Grown Ups” and “Knight and Day” looking for good second-weekend holds, total box-office tallies could formidable by the end of the holiday.
“I think you’re going to see a weekend up significantly from last year because of the breadth of product,” said Rob Moore, vice chairman of “Last Airbender” studio Paramount Pictures. “You really have something for everyone.”