- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) - “Star Wars” fever has spread through movie theaters around the globe, even reaching the White House, as the franchise yet again began toppling box-office records with waves of lightsaber-wielding fans.

Following a record $57 million from Thursday night showings in North America, and packed matinees on Friday, the Walt Disney Co. projected that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will surpass $215 million on the weekend, besting the record domestic opening of “Jurassic World,” which debuted with $208.8 million in June.

Such an outcome would surprise few analysts, but the numbers were nevertheless eye-popping. “The Force Awakens” was heading toward a Thursday night-Friday total of more than $120 million domestically, said Dave Hollis, head of distribution for Disney. The previous one-day high was $91.1 million set by “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” in 2011.

In such rarified territory, Disney has been cautious about overestimating the box-office force of J.J. Abrams’ seventh chapter in George Lucas’ space saga. Based on the early response, many analysts have the film pegged for a weekend total closer to $250 million - far above “Jurassic World.”

Disney’s biggest worry has been that moviegoers will be too daunted by sold-out shows and long lines. More than $100 million advance tickets (also a record) were sold ahead of the opening of “The Force Awakens,” much of those going toward Thursday and Friday shows. Saturday and Sunday will depend more on traditional walk-up business. Hollis said exhibitors are continually adding more screenings to satisfy demand.

The international rollout for the film, made for about $200 million, has already brought in an estimated total of $72.7 million since opening in a handful of countries Wednesday. “The Force Awakens” is simultaneously opening around the world just about everywhere but China, where it debuts in January.

It’s setting records overseas, too, including the biggest single day ever in the United Kingdom with an estimated $14.4 million on Thursday.

While “Star Wars” helped create the summer blockbuster, “The Force Awakens” is debuting in the holiday season of December, where the previous top opening was the $84.6 million debut of 2012’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” By Disney’s estimates, “The Force Awakens” - the widest December opening ever with 4,134 theaters - blew past that number by Friday afternoon.

Imax and 3-D screenings are helping to propel the record gross. Disney said that 47 percent of the Thursday box office came from 3-D showings and $5.7 million from Imax screens.

A lot is riding on the film for Disney, which paid $4.06 billion for Lucasfilm in 2012. Sequels and spinoffs are already in development for years to come, not to mention an entire corner of Disneyland devoted to the franchise.

Strong reviews for the film, which is set 30 years after “Return of the Jedi,” have added to the fervor for “The Force Awakens.” Critics have hailed it as a fan-friendly return to form for the franchise; the American Film Institute listed it among its top 10 films of the year.

Such a positive reaction for “The Force Awakens” may attract the kind of repeat viewings that made James Cameron’s “Avatar” and “Titanic” the highest grossing films of all time. Whether “The Force Awakens” can come close to the global hauls of those films ($2.8 billion for “Avatar” and $2.2 billion for “Titanic”) won’t be clear for weeks.

But so far, “The Force Awakens” is attracting the interest of seemingly everyone. President Barack Obama began a year-end news conference Friday noting, “Clearly, this is not the most important event that’s taking place in the White House today.” Soon to begin was a screening of the film for families who have lost a relative to combat or service-related injuries.

After fielding questions, Obama concluded the press conference: “OK everybody, I got to get to ‘Star Wars.’ “

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Follow AP Film Writer on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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