WILDER ABOUT HARRY

Harry Potter retained his magic touch in spades Wednesday as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix collected $44.76 million, the best Wednesday gross in box-office history, according to Warner Brothers. The figure, which includes midnight screenings on Tuesday/Wednesday night, beat the previous record holder, Sony's Spider-Man 2 which opened with $40.44 million on Wednesday, June 30, 2004. Box-office analysts are now predicting that the film will bring in as much as $125 through Sunday, although the studio itself is conservatively forecasting a $100-million debut over the five days.

MIDNIGHT SCREENINGS ATTRACT KIDS AND ADULTS

Apparently a lot of kids were allowed to stay up late Tuesday as midnight screenings of Harry Potter and the order of the Phoenix raked in a record-breaking $12 million in 2,311 theaters. The figure represented the biggest gross for a film opening at midnight on Wednesday, far exceeding the previous record high -- $8 million, earned by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003. The last Potter movie, Goblet of Fire, took in $6 million at its midnight screenings in 2005.

U.K. TRADE REPORT PREDICTS FINAL POTTER BOOK WILL COME OUT EARLY

With mounting fascination with all things Harry Potter, the British trade magazine The Bookseller is predicting that the final Harry Potter novel, Deathly Hallows, will hit the shelves before the official publishing date, July 21. "It's quite possible one [book dealer] will break the embargo," Katherine Rushton of The Bookseller told the BBC. "They'd do it to be first, and for all the PR." But a spokesperson for Bloomsbury, the book's British publisher, responded, "If such a thing were to happen, we believe that the public would make their feelings known by not buying it from such a spoilsport retailer." The publisher has been able to enforce previous embargoes by threatening to withhold future Harry Potter books from any bookstore breaking them. This time, Rushton observed, "Because it's the final Harry Potter, Bloomsbury doesn't have the same power.

PARAMOUNT REACHES SUMMIT EARLIER THAN RIVALS

Paramount, which had been running well behind most of the major studios in the box-office race in previous years, has suddenly emerged as the frontrunner, thanks in large part to its merger with DreamWorks. On Tuesday the studio said that it had crossed the $1 billion mark -- doing so earlier in the calendar year than any studio had done previously. The company said that it expects to surpass 1998, its highest-grossing year (when it took in $1.046 billion) by the end of the upcoming weekend.

SEAN PENN TO APPEAR IN MOVIE CRITICAL OF IRAN

Sean Penn, who controversially visited Iran as a journalist during the 2005 presidential elections there and wrote a series of articles for the San Francisco Chronicle about his experiences, will lend his voice to the U.S. version of Persepolis, the animated film that won the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. (The film has become a smash hit in France, where it has earned $3.7 million over the past two weeks in about 250 theaters.) Penn will voice the role of the father of a young girl trying to come to terms with the theocracy that held sway in Iran following the fall of the Shah in 1979. In Penn's articles for the Chronicle, he was particularly critical of the country's treatment of women. Persepolis was recently removed from competition at the Bangkok Film Festival at the behest of the Iranian government, which earlier had condemned the Cannes jury's award.

HOLLYWOOD FLOP MAY BECOME BROADWAY SMASH

Broadway has apparently turned Hollywood on its head by turning the 1980 musical flop Xanadu into a stage hit. By and large, the show, which opened Tuesday night, has received enthusiastic reviews. Calling it an "outlandishly enjoyable stage spoof," New York Times stage critic Charles Isherwood writes that it is "simultaneously indefensible and irresistible." Isherwood concludes: "The show's winking attitude toward its own aesthetic abjectness can be summed up thus: If you can't beat 'em, slap on some roller skates and join 'em." Linda Winer in Newsday calls the show "a grand little piece of smart dumb fun." And Joe Dzienmianowicz, in the New York Daily News calls it "eye and ear candy that's delightfully inspiring ... a cure for summertime blues." But Clive Barnes in the New York Post isn't buying any of that. Noting that the original movie was credited with killing off the large-scale Hollywood musical for more than two decades, Barnes suggests that the only thing "not awful" about the Broadway show is the music. "That, I suppose, is the only goodish news of an absolutely ghastly show" in which the performers all have "to keep their tongues in their cheeks for so long it must give them earaches," he remarks.

Brian B.