LOS ANGELES - Call it return of the cash.
"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" took in $34.1 million domestically on opening day, easily beating the debuts of the fantasy epic's first two installments, distributor New Line Cinema said Thursday.
It was a record debut for a movie opening on Wednesday, surpassing the $28.5 million take for "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" in 1999.
The film also had the sixth-best single-day gross ever, behind "Spider-Man" with $43.6 million and $39.4 million on two different days, "The Matrix Reloaded" with $37.5 million and $34.4 million on two different days, and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" with $34.2 million.
Those films ran far shorter than "Return of the King," whose three-hour, 20-minute running time limits the number of screenings theaters can squeeze in each day.
By Sunday, "Return of the King" should have handily passed the $102 million that "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" grossed domestically in its first five days last year.
The film also took in $23.5 million in 19 other countries where it debuted Wednesday, including Great Britain, Germany and France. The movie was opening in about 10 more countries Thursday and Friday and gradually expands to other territories over the next couple of months.
New Line executives hope the final chapter of the saga will ultimately top $1 billion worldwide, becoming the second movie to cross that mark, after "Titanic" with $1.8 billion.
"Everyone wants to have closure and see the last part of the story, so I think we should be able to hit that mark," said Rolf Mittweg, New Line's head of worldwide marketing and distribution. "People are storming to the theaters. All shows have been sold out virtually."
Unlike many sequels, which can lose steam with each successive movie, "The Lord of the Rings" has expanded its audience as the story unfolded.
Part one, "The Fellowship of the Ring," took in $18.2 million domestically on day one in 2001, topping out with a total domestic haul of $314 million and a worldwide tally of $861 million.
The middle chapter, "The Two Towers," opened last year with $26.2 million domestically on its way to a $340 million domestic total and $921 million globally.
The release of "Return of the King" closes a seven-year odyssey to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien's mammoth chronicle about an alliance of humans, wizards, elves, dwarves and hobbits aiming to destroy a ring of ultimate power and stop an evil lord from enslaving the mythical land of Middle-earth.
The films were shot simultaneously in New Zealand by relatively untested director Peter Jackson, who had been best known for a series of cult-horror flicks and the acclaimed 1994 drama "Heavenly Creatures," which helped launch Kate Winslet's career.
With about $300 million committed to the production by New Line and other investors, the project was a major risk if the first film flopped. But by the time New Line dazzled critics with 26 minutes of footage at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, the studio knew it had a winner.
"This may have been the biggest gamble in cinema history," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. "For New Line, this is a feather in their cap. This is their legacy. To me, it's the strongest intersection of critical acclaim and box-office success in a series of films that I've ever seen."