"Avengers: Endgame," the 22nd film in Marvel Studios' long-running superhero saga, is poised to rejuvenate 2019's box office with what is widely expected to be a record-breaking opening weekend.
The Walt Disney Co. film, which opens Thursday evening, is projected to gross about $260 million in the U.S. and Canada through Sunday, according to people who have reviewed pre-release audience surveys. Some industry sources say the film could even hit $300 million in its first weekend of release, given the unusual number of estimated online presales and sold-out showings.
"The goal post keeps increasing," said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com. "Everything about this movie is unprecedented."
If it does as well as expected, the star-studded film could exceed the previous domestic record of $257.7 million set last year by its predecessor, "Avengers: Infinity War."
That would give an early jolt to Hollywood's summer blockbuster season and deliver a much-needed boost to North American theaters. Ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada are down 16 percent this year over last, according to measurement firm Comscore. The industry is coming off the worst Easter box-office weekend in almost 15 years, despite the solid debut of the horror movie "The Curse of La Llorona."
"This will kick off a period of momentum that will week by week knock down that year-to-date deficit," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. "We're going to scratch and claw our way back."
Anticipation is high for the film that reunites Iron Man, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye and newer additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after "Infinity War" grossed more than $2 billion worldwide and left moviegoers with a cruel cliffhanger.
The PG-13 film, directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, resolves story arcs that Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has been creating since the 2008 release of "Iron Man." Disney bought Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion in 2009.
"People want to see how it wraps up," said Rich Gelfond, chief executive of Imax Corp. "It's been 10 years leading up to this, and people have gotten to know these characters."
The movie is also certain to do huge business internationally. It opens in nearly every country this week, including the second-largest box-office market: China. Analysts predict the film will collect about $550 million overseas, bringing its potential global total to a record of more than $800 million in its first week.
The expected flood of business has proved to be a logistical challenge for cinemas that are trying to max out sales. The film is set to play in more than 4,600 theaters domestically, a record for the industry.
AMC Theatres, Regal Entertainment and Cinemark have been adding late-night and early-morning screenings to make up for "Endgame's" three-hour run time, which limits the number of showings cinemas can schedule. Exhibitors have to dedicate about four hours to each showing to make time for previews and cleaning.
Seventeen of AMC Theatres' locations are scheduled to remain open for more than 72 hours straight starting Thursday night, the Leawood, Kan., company said Monday. Among the multiplexes pulling all-nighters throughout the weekend are the AMC Century City 15 and AMC Orange 30.
The movie has already driven about $120 million in advance sales in the U.S. and Canada, according to industry estimates, surpassing the previous record set by "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in 2015. A frenzy of ticket-buying crashed AMC's website for hours when passes went on sale this month.
Fandango, the largest online ticket seller, said it has already sold out more than 4,000 showtimes across the country. At Universal Cinema AMC at CityWalk Hollywood, for example, an Imax screening at 2:15 a.m. Friday was nearly sold out as of Tuesday, except for front-row seats.
The run-up to the release has not been without hiccups for Disney. An unauthorized online leak of footage this month prompted fans to bail from social media and led the directors to issue a plea for people to keep quiet about the plot.
Social media reactions from people who attended Disney's massive Monday premiere screening at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where the company set up a 2,000-seat theater, have been largely positive, describing "Endgame" as an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
"I don't know about you, but I cried like six times," Chris Evans, who plays Captain America, said from the stage after the screening ended. Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor, joked to Evans that he cried more than six times.
With the saga coming to a close, Feige has revealed little about the next planned phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has multiple untitled films scheduled for release through 2022. The juggernaut has recently built out its lineup with a more diverse group of heroes, including the lucrative Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson).
After "Endgame," analysts expect a strong season of potential blockbusters during Hollywood's summer period, which stretches from the first weekend in May through Labor Day. Highly anticipated films including Fox's final "X-Men" installment "Dark Phoenix," Disney's "The Lion King" remake and Universal Pictures' "The Secret Life of Pets 2."
Despite the sluggish start to the year, theaters are still hoping 2019 will exceed last year's domestic total of $11.9 billion, an all-time high not adjusted for inflation.
"'Avengers' is going to turn around the story pretty fast," Robbins said. "There should be a lot more upside in the rest of the year."
Times staff writers Sonaiya Kelley and Tracy Brown contributed to this report.