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‘Avengers’ set to rescue Disney – and Hollywood

The Avengers

By Chris Isidore

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Both Disney and Hollywood could use a hero right about now — and here comes “The Avengers” in the nick of time.

“The Avengers,” a mash-up of Marvel comic heroes, smashed opening U.S. box office records over the weekend, putting it well on the way to becoming Walt Disney’s top-grossing film ever.

It sold $200.3 million in domestic box office tickets over the weekend, easily topping the previous record of $169.2 million set by “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2″ last July.

Disney is still reeling from its epic flop “John Carter,” which lost an estimated $200 million and cost the head of the company’s studio unit his job. For its part, in 2011, Hollywood posted its worst year for ticket sales in 16 years.

“This is happening at the right time for them to erase that ugly memory,” said Box Office Mojo analyst Reagen Sulewski.

Disney gained the rights to the legendary characters with its $4 billion purchase of comic book publisher Marvel three years ago.

The three movies made with Marvel characters have grossed $1.4 billion worldwide.

Disney made the unusual move of opening “The Avengers” overseas a week before its U.S. debut, pulling in $281 million. It sold another $160.5 million overseas last weekend, bringing total worldwide box office to $641.8 million.

With its strong start, “The Avengers” is projected to top the $1.07 billion in worldwide box office posted by “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” which has reigned as Disney’s biggest movie since 2006.

“The Avengers” is the first of several Hollywood hits that analysts hope can help revive the industry after an extremely disappointing 2011.

Total U.S. box office in the first quarter was about $2.3 billion, up almost 46% from a year earlier, according to Box Office Mojo.

“It’s already started out to be a strong year,” said James Gross, analyst with Buckingham Research.

“The Hunger Games” from Lionsgate posted a strong showing when it debuted earlier this year. Next up is “Men in Black III,” which is due from Sony on Memorial Day weekend. And Disney should get a lift from the movie “Brave,” which is coming in June from its Pixar unit.

Other summer hits include “The Amazing Spider-Man,” out July 3 from Marvel Studios and Sony, as well as “The Dark Knight Rises” from Time Warner unit Warner Bros., which hits theaters July 20. Time Warner is the parent of CNN and CNNMoney.

“What Hollywood has been doing well this year is giving us movies that need the big screen treatment, said Box Office Mojo’s Sulewski. “They need the three-story high screen where it makes an impact, compared to a quieter film where they’ll say ‘I’ll watch that at home.”

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