LOS ANGELES - Movie audiences shelled out a king's ransom for one last trip to Middle-earth. "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" raked in $73.6 million in its first weekend and put up a five-day haul of $125.1 million since debuting Wednesday, according to studio estimates Sunday.
That put it well ahead of the fantasy trilogy's first two chapters. Part one, "The Fellowship of the Ring," grossed $47.2 million over opening weekend and $75 million in its first five days, while the middle chapter, "The Two Towers," had a $62 million opening weekend and took in $102 million over its first five days.
Julia Roberts' "Mona Lisa Smile," the weekend's only other new wide release, opened as the No. 2 movie with $12 million. The previous weekend's top movie, "Something's Gotta Give," slipped to third with $11.5 million.
"Return of the King" did not set records for best domestic opening weekend, but it put up the highest numbers ever for a worldwide debut. The film added $121 million in 28 other countries since Wednesday for a global total of $246.1 million, surpassing the $202.8 million five-day opening for "The Matrix Revolutions" last month.
"That is amazing. The worldwide sweep of this movie is unprecedented. To have a quarter-billion-dollar gross in five days shows what a broad swath this movie cuts," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. "These would be good numbers for a film to do in its entire run, but this is just the beginning."
The worldwide record was all the more remarkable considering "Matrix Revolutions" opened virtually everywhere simultaneously, while "Return of the King" has yet to debut in many markets, among them Japan, Italy and Australia.
The fast start boosts the prospects for "Return of the King" to top the $861 million total worldwide gross for "Fellowship of the Ring" and $921 million take for "Two Towers." "Return of the King" could become the second movie to top $1 billion worldwide, after "Titanic" ($1.8 billion).
Directed by Peter Jackson, the three films are based on J.R.R. Tolkien's epic adventure of hobbits, wizards, humans, elves and dwarves battling for control of the mythical realm of Middle-earth. The ensemble cast includes Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett.
The films were shot at the same time, allowing distributor New Line Cinema to rush them into theaters only a year apart and assuring fans of the same production value.
"Peter managed to sustain the same level of creativity and the same level of excitement for each film, so the quality level was always maintained, and I think it was exceeded in the last movie," said Rolf Mittweg, New Line's head of worldwide distribution and marketing.
Other studios mostly stayed away from opening weekend for "Return of the King," holding the last of their big holiday wide releases for Christmas Day, when such films as "Cold Mountain," "Peter Pan" and "Cheaper by the Dozen" open.
In limited release, "Calendar Girls" debuted with a solid $161,000 at 24 theaters. Starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, the film is based on a real-life group of older British women who posed nude for a charity calendar.
"House of Sand and Fog," a somber drama about an American woman and an Iranian immigrant battling for possession of a home seized over back taxes, took in a healthy $44,000 debuting in two theaters. It stars Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly.
"The Fog of War" - a documentary about Robert McNamara, U.S. defense secretary during much of the Vietnam War - opened strongly in three theaters with $40,779.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at North American theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," $73.6 million.
2. "Mona Lisa Smile," $12 million.
3. "Something's Gotta Give," $11.5 million.
4. "The Last Samurai," $7.3 million.
5. "Stuck on You," $5.4 million. 6. "Elf," $5 million.
7. "Bad Santa," $4.3 million.
8. "The Haunted Mansion," $4.2 million.
9. "Love Don't Cost a Thing," $4 million.
10. "Honey," $2.6 million.