Will This Film Be Disney’s Golden Ticket?

Disney’s (NYSE:DIS) The Avengers, due in theaters nationwide this weekend, is expected to surpass the $152.5 million debut of Lionsgate’s (NYSE:LGF) The Hunger Games, which in March had the third-largest opener in history behind Warner Brothers’ (NYSE:TWX) two behemoth sequels Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and The Dark Knight.

To date, The Hunger Games is also the year’s highest-grossing film, but the way Avengers is tracking, it may soon forfeit that title. Estimates for the Walt Disney Co. picture, featuring Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk, all of whom starred in their own films over the past few years leading up to The Avengers, range from $150 million to a weekend record of $170 million. The film opens in U.S. theaters on May 4.

Hunger Games, released nationwide on March 23, set the mark to beat for summer films. With the exception of The Avengers, no other film seems in a position to best Hunger Games at the box office until The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises open in July.

The Hollywood Reporter is tracking the film for a $150 million-plus opening. Analysts are being a bit more bullish, with two suggesting the movie may exceed the record set last year by the final film in the Harry Potter franchise.

The Avengers, like The Dark Knight and Harry Potter before it, will benefit from the popularity of previous movies based on the characters, including Robert Downey Jr.’s two Iron Man movies. Released as Marvel’s The Avengers in some overseas markets already, the film had generated $218 million as of yesterday, setting records in 12 countries including Australia, Brazil, and Mexico.

Disney spokesman Paul Roeder declined to comment on forecasts, but high expectations for the film were enough to send shares up 1.6 percent yesterday in New York. The stock is up 17 percent this year.

The film has garnered a lot of social media buzz, particularly on Facebook, where it had 1.33 million “likes” on its official page as s of yesterday. However, on the Monday before it hit theaters, The Hunger Games has 2.99 million likes.

Comcast’s (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Fandango.com reported yesterday that ticket pre-sales for The Avengers accounted for 91 percent of total purchases yesterday. At the same time in March, The Hunger Games accounted for 92 percent of pre-sales.