The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King: According to The Associated Press, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King took in an estimated $8 million domestically from 2,100 midnight screenings Wednesday, according to distributor New Line Cinema.

That was about double the haul for midnight screenings of last year's middle chapter, The Two Towers. That film played in about half as many theaters for those midnight showings.

Results from the midnight screenings alone were almost half the $18.2 million that part one, "The Fellowship of the Ring," took in over its entire first day two years ago. The midnight showings rang up nearly a third of the $26.2 million total first-day grosses for "The Two Towers."

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New Line executives hope the fast start for Return of the King will propel it beyond the worldwide totals for "Fellowship of the Ring" ($861 million) and "Two Towers" ($921 million"). The movie could become the second to surpass $1 billion worldwide, following "Titanic," which grossed $1.8 billion.

"This thing is so gigantic, we really don't know where we're going," said New Line head of domestic distribution David Tuckerman. "We finally have a movie with an ending, and it ties everything together. This movie emotionally is far more satisfying than the other two, and the battle scenes are better. But there's a finite group of people who will go to see movies, so who knows how high it will go?"

After the midnight debut, "The Return of the King" widened to 3,702 theaters for daytime and evening screenings Wednesday, and New Line reported strong ticket sales for those later showings.

Brian B.