"High School Musical" rocks box office

Cast members Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron pose at the premiere of the movie "High School Musical 3: Senior Year" at Galen Center in Los Angeles in this file photo from October 16, 2008. The movie opened in the U.S. on October 24. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - “High School Musical 3: Senior Year,” the first big-screen adaptation of Walt Disney Co’s popular TV movie franchise, graduated top of the class during its first weekend in North American theatres, according to preliminary sales estimates issued on Saturday.

The movie sold $16.9 million (10.6 million pounds) worth of tickets during its opening day on Friday, Disney said, and will easily beat pundits’ forecasts of a weekend haul in the $40 million range. Disney declined to give a weekend estimate until Sunday.

“High School Musical 3” will have little trouble crushing the $27.8 million record for a musical opening set by the ABBA-themed romance “Mamma Mia!” in July.

It also ends the four-year winning streak of the “Saw” horror franchise. “Saw V” will come in at No. 2 with weekend sales of $30.1 million, based on a Friday haul of $14 million, said distributor Lionsgate. Beginning in 2004, the first four films all opened at No. 1 on consecutive Octobers.

Amid inevitable questions about the franchise’s longevity, “Saw V” opened in the same $30 million range as the most recent three films. The problem is that total domestic sales peaked at $87 million for “Saw II.” Lionsgate is a unit of Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.

The “High School Musical” franchise shows no signs of slowing down, though. It has generated two smash TV movies, two chart-topping albums, and made teen idols out of its stars, Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Tisdale.

The plot of the new film brings the cast back to their fictional New Mexico high school, where Troy (Efron) must decide between pursuing a basketball scholarship or his song-and-dance dreams. The usual teen-angst issues ensue.

Critics were fairly generous in their praise, with about two-thirds of those polled by Rotten Tomatoes ( giving it the thumbs up.

Reporting by Dean Goodman