"King Kong," Peter Jackson's remake about the giant ape in love, took in $9.8 million domestically in its first day, solid for a Wednesday debut but far below the king-size premieres of other action epics.
Distributor Universal called it a good beginning that will generate audience word-of-mouth on top of stellar reviews for "King Kong."
"My little monkey's doing great," said Nikki Rocco, Universal's head of distribution. "We're convinced with all the information we have that this is the big guy, and he's going to be around for a long time."
The first of Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" films, "The Fellowship of the Ring," opened on a Wednesday in December 2001 with $18.2 million, nearly double the take of "King Kong."
The second installment, "The Two Towers," debuted on a Wednesday a year later with $26.2 million, while the final chapter, "The Return of the King," opened with $34.5 million the next year, a record for a Wednesday debut until "Spider-Man 2" broke it six months later with $40.4 million.
"The Lord of the Rings" flicks opened closer to Christmas, when college students generally were off for winter break and free to hit the theaters.
The $9.8 million gross puts "King Kong" at No. 21 on the all-time list of best Wednesday debuts, just behind "Catch Me If You Can" and ahead of "Armageddon." Most other films ranking above it were summer blockbusters or franchise films such as "The Matrix Revolutions."
Still, expectations have been huge for "King Kong," though analysts say it could follow the long-haul pattern of "Titanic," which had a comparatively modest $28.6 million opening weekend but stayed afloat to become the biggest-grossing modern film at $600 million domestically and $1.8 billion worldwide.
"I think the thought is that this movie would have opened bigger, because it's `King Kong' and it's Peter Jackson," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.
"But I think this is a movie that's going to perform well this weekend and be in this for the long term, because it's a really good movie, and that will hold it in good stead and generate great audience reaction," Dergarabedian said. "So this is just the beginning for this film."
Besides its domestic gross, "King Kong" debuted with a total of $8 million in 36 other countries Wednesday. According to Universal, "King Kong" had the biggest Wednesday opening ever in Jackson's home turf of New Zealand and outgrossed the first days of "The Lord of the Rings" movies in Hong Kong and Malaysia.
A new take on the 1933 classic, "King Kong" stars Naomi Watts as the beauty who catches the eye of the 25-foot gorilla when she travels with a film crew to the island where Kong is king of the beasts. The film co-stars Jack Black as the filmmaker leading the expedition and Adrien Brody as the screenwriter who becomes romantically involved with Watts.
Critics generally called "King Kong" a triumph of big-studio filmmaking, raving about the colossal action and visual effects, though some reviewers felt the movie could have been shorter.
The three-hour length limited the number of screenings that theaters could fit in, though "The Lord of the Rings" movies all had similar running times.
"You had the geek audience waiting for `Lord of the Rings,'" Rocco said. "We're a very different movie. We knew going in we were going to be building a franchise."
Rocco noted that "Shrek 2" had a "good Wednesday debut, not a blowout," but went on to become a blockbuster. "Shrek 2" took in $11.8 million on opening Wednesday and followed with $108 million in its first weekend on its way to becoming the top-grossing animated film ever at $436 million.
Boxofficemojo.com, which tracks movie grosses, forecast a $58 million opening weekend for "King Kong." The trade paper Variety reported that industry expectations peg the film's prospects at a bit less than the $65.6 million debut of last weekend's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."