LOS ANGELES – On Tuesday night it was time to play Ring around the box office.
Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy novel, The Lord of the Rings began lining up at theaters an hour or more before show time so they could be among the first to catch midnight screenings of Hollywood's latest blockbuster inspired by a beloved series of fantasy novels.
"I thought it would be something monumental, kind of like the new Star Wars," said Cleveland high school student Clifton Robinson, sipping tea to keep warm as he stood in line with about 30 other people outside a theater in Shaker Square on Tuesday night.
The fact that he had to be back in class at 8 a.m. Wednesday didn't deter Robinson, who showed up 90 minutes early.
"It will be nice to see what Hollywood comes up with for such a great piece of literature," he said.
Standing next to him was George Warnock, 38. He had traveled 25 miles from his home in Mentor, Ohio, without a ticket to the sold-out show but with hopes of a miracle.
"I read it six times as a kid," Warnock said of the book. "I read it to my kids last year."
In Cleveland's suburban Valley View, the film was showing on four screens in the 24-screen Cinemark movie complex. In one of the packed theaters, rather than cheer, the audience sat in almost reverent silence as the movie began.
Similar scenes were expected at theaters across the nation as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of three movies based on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books, challenges Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for the title of this year's biggest box-office hit.
Angie Tollerson, 25, plans to don the elaborate costume of an elfin sorceress and attend a Wednesday night screening in Des Moines, Iowa.
"We have a line party going outside the theater and about 30 people are planning to show up," she said. "I can't wait. There'll be minstrels playing, and my husband is going as [the wizard] Gandalf."
Tollerson put together a database of line parties around the world for the fan Web site TheOneRing.net and estimated that about 4,200 people plan to attend about 500 such gatherings around the globe.
Some theaters were holding screenings at midnight Tuesday night.
Although anticipation for the film is not quite as strong as that for last month's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, advance ticket sellers report that Rings is responsible for roughly 85 percent of sales this week.
Fandango.com, an online ticket distributor, said Rings has sold about half as many tickets as Potter. But since the boy wizard's advance box-office sales averaged about five times more than any other film this year, Rings is still on track for a powerful debut.
"We're certainly selling tickets at a rapid clip," said Mindy Tucker, spokeswoman for Loews Cineplex Entertainment, which has 2,600 screens nationwide.
Moviefone, another advance ticket seller, had sold more than 100,000 tickets for Rings by Tuesday, said Russ Leatherman, the founder and voice of the telephone sales service.
"It will certainly be one of the biggest advance ticket sales of the season, probably second to Harry Potter," he said.
Harry Potter had a record $90.3 million, three-day opening weekend.
The first of the three Lord of the Rings films, The Fellowship of the Ring, is opening in more than 10,000 theaters worldwide, according to New Line Cinema.
Its Wednesday debut "gives it a jump on other films," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, which tracks the box office.
"Also, the core audience for this film reads, and they are probably following the reviews very closely. The good news is that the early buzz and critical reviews have been very strong, so that's a good sign for the weekend."
Salon.com named it "movie of the year," and Entertainment Weekly called it a "great picture, a triumphant picture, a joyfully conceived work of cinema."
Rings had four nominations for the new American Film Institute awards, including best picture, production design, special effects and musical score.
Michael Regina, 23, a computer technician from Montreal and a Tolkien fan, has already seen the movie twice at preview screenings but plans to see it again on opening night.
"I've already got my tickets for Wednesday and then I'll probably go on the weekend," he said. "And then again after that, and again and again."