LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Actor Harrison Ford cracked the box-office whip as his latest "Indiana Jones" movie grossed a hefty $25 million from its first day in North American theaters, independent industry analysts reported on Friday.
That tally ranks as the fourth highest-grossing Thursday debut on record and bodes well for a movie industry looking to "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" to help shake the movie business out an early summer slump.
But analysts were divided over whether the highly anticipated adventure flick from Viacom Inc's Paramount Pictures is on track to overtake last year's "Pirates of the Caribbean" film as the biggest opening on a U.S. Memorial Day holiday weekend.
"Crystal Skull," directed by Steven Spielberg, is the fourth movie in the beloved and lucrative movie franchise that began in 1981 with "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and is the first to hit the big screen in 19 years.
The three previous "Indy" movies have collectively grossed more than $1.2 billion in ticket sales worldwide.
In the latest film, Ford, 65, reprises his title role as the bullwhip-cracking archeologist who hates snakes, and is reunited with actress Karen Allen, his co-star from the first adventure. Set during the 1950s Cold War era, the story pits him against an evil KGB agent played by Cate Blanchett in a race to find a skull endowed with mystic powers.
Box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media By Numbers, said the film's opening Thursday performance was robust enough without being so strong as to diminish its weekend audience.
If its Friday-through-Monday box office tally crosses the $140 million mark, the film would exceed last year's Walt Disney Co's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" as the biggest North American opening yet for the four-day Memorial Day holiday weekend.
"They have a strong shot at meeting or exceeding that Pirates of the Caribbean number last year," Dergarabedian said.
Brandon Gray, president of online tracking service Box Office Mojo, disagreed.
"We just don't have enough previous data to say what this $25 million indicates," he said, noting that few potential blockbusters have opened on the Thursday before a four-day holiday weekend.
Both analysts agreed, however, that the movie was likely to reap a handsome return for Paramount over the long run. Gray added that "Crystal Skull" already has grossed in its first day about half the business each of the last two "Indy" films -- "The Last Crusade" and "The Temple of Doom" -- did in their first full weekends when adjusting for ticket price inflation.
By comparison, the highest-grossing Thursday debut at the domestic box office was the $50 million raked in three years ago by "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," according to Box Office Mojo. But that film's first weekend did not fall on a holiday.
The last big release from Paramount, "Iron Man," opened three weeks ago with $98.6 million in U.S.-Canadian receipts its first Friday-through-Sunday frame -- a sum that the latest "Indiana Jones" film is expected to surpass.
Unlike the new "Indiana Jones" film, "Iron Man" was fully financed by Marvel Studios, which paid Paramount a flat fee to market and distribute its film. Thus, Paramount has much more at stake riding on the success of its latest release.