By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" weighed anchor with $346.4 million in ticket sales from its first week in worldwide release and set a record as the biggest film debut ever outside North America, according to studio estimates on Sunday.
The fourth installment in the blockbuster Walt Disney Co series -- its first in 3-D -- dug up $90.1 million of its box office treasure from Friday through Sunday in the United States and Canada alone, a figure at the lower end of projections.
By comparison, two previous "Pirates" sequels each grossed well over $100 million in their first three days domestically.
But the latest "Pirates" adventure plundered an additional $256.3 million in overseas receipts to surpass 2009's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" as the highest-grossing international movie opening of all time, Disney said.
All told, "On Stranger Tides" collected an estimated $346.4 million worldwide -- domestic and overseas -- in its first week. That marks the fourth biggest global opening ever, behind the 2009 "Harry Potter" film, "Spider-Man 3" and Disney's last "Pirates" tale, "At World's End."
The global tally included a record $16.7 million grossed from showings on about 400 IMAX Corp giant-format screens around the world, Imax said.
Setting sail with lackluster reviews but little competition in 4,155 U.S. and Canadian theaters, "On Stranger Tides" also finished its opening weekend as the biggest North American film debut so far this year. It exceeded the $86.2 million grossed by hot-rod thriller "Fast Five" in late April.
The newest "Pirates" adventure pairs returning star Johnny Depp in his signature role as Captain Jack Sparrow with Oscar winner Penelope Cruz, a newcomer to the franchise. The film also co-stars another Academy Award winner and "Pirates" veteran, Geoffrey Rush, along with Ian McShane making his first appearance as Blackbeard.
The comedy "Bridesmaids" ranked a distant No. 2 in its second weekend at the U.S.-Canadian box office with $21.1 million but held on to an impressive 80 percent of its business from the previous week.
Rounding out the top five were Marvel's superhero drama "Thor," grossing $15.5 million in its third weekend, "Fast Five" with $10.6 million in its fourth weekend, and the 3-D animated "Rio" with $4.7 million in its sixth.
Woody Allen's latest offering, "Midnight in Paris," benefiting from rave reviews and a warm reception at Cannes, managed to crack the top 12 with nearly $579,000 grossed from just six theaters in its first weekend in North America.
A robust "Pirates" performance was seen as critical to Disney after the misfire of its heavily promoted but poorly attended animated film "Mars Needs Moms" in March, which dragged down its fiscal second-quarter studio revenues.
Strong overseas showings for "On Stranger Tides," including nearly $53 million collectively in emerging markets such as Russia, India and China over the weekend, underscored the growing importance of studios' international business.
"In the context of the global box office, it's a total winner," said box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Hollywood.com said of "Pirates."
Still, "On Stranger Tides" fell short of debut receipts posted domestically by each of the first two "Pirates" sequels -- $135.6 million in 2006 for "Dead Man's Chest" and $114.7 million a year later for "At World's End."
The very first film in the franchise, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," grossed just $46.6 million domestically in its first weekend in 2003.
Poor reviews never help but the weaker commercial showing for "On Stranger Tides" in North America compared with the last two "Pirates" films may have more to do with a general softness in the current marketplace. Some momentum also may have been lost in the four years between "Pirates 3" and the new film.
With the arrival of "On Stranger Tides," the entire franchise has now amassed over $3 billion in theatrical receipts collectively worldwide, Disney said.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Philip Barbara and Bill Trott)