The return of the ''Lord of the Rings'' trilogy to the multiplex meant the return of the ka-ching at the U.S. box office. According to distributor New Line,'' ''The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King'' rang up first-day ticket sales of $34.1 million, a record for a Wednesday opening and the third best opening day of all time. (The previous Wednesday best belonged to 1999's ''Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace,'' with $28.5 million, while the one-day record still belongs to last year's ''Spider-Man,'' with $39.4 million).
The Wednesday figures, representing 3,703 theaters, include $8 million from night-owl moviegoers who attended midnight screenings Tuesday at 2,100 theaters. The Wednesday strategy has paid off for the franchise; the midweek opening of last year's ''The Two Towers'' took in $26.2 million, and the Wednesday opening of 2001's ''The Fellowship of the Ring'' grossed $18.2 million. This year, only ''The Matrix Reloaded'' has had a bigger first day ($37.5 million). Still, the hobbits can claim a global victory over Neo and Trinity. ''Return of the King'' grossed another $23 million overseas on Wednesday, giving it a one-day total of $57 million, running rings around the $43 million grossed by the worldwide simultaneous opening of ''The Matrix Revolutions'' last month.