The Dark Knight has set a new box office record for midnight preview screenings in the US.

The Batman Begins sequel took $18.5 million (£9.2 million) from its showings at 00:01 US time alone to smash the previous preview record of $16.9 (£8.5 million) set by Star Wars Episode III - The Revenge of the Sith in 2005.

Box office receipts from screenings at 03:00 and 06:00 were not counted in The Dark Knight's record-breaking bow, increasing speculation that the Warner Bros film will achieve an opening weekend total of more than $100 million (£50 million) in the US and Canada.

A $100 million debut would more than double the $47 million (£23.5 million) opening tally averaged by the five previous Batman films, including Batman Begins.

And the Christopher Nolan film - which sees Christian Bale return as the Caped Crusader - would enter an exclusive club should it break the $100 million, with Iron Man having earned $101 million in May and Spider-Man 3 having pulled in $151 million (£75.5 million) in May 2007.

"We're very proud of the film," said Warner Bros head of distribution Dan Fellman.

"It's the magic of the movie business, how one film just stands out above the others," he was quoted by the Associated Press news agency as saying.

The late Heath Ledger's performance of The Joker has been tipped to be worthy of a posthumous Oscar, while critics have been unanimous in heaping praise on the film.

Paul Dergarabedian, president of tracking firm Media By Numbers LLC, which compiled the preview figures, said there had been an "unbelievable demand" for the film.

"The Heath Ledger factor is a major part of this," he added.

"Beyond that, the movie is so good, it's worthy of all these accolades."

The Dark Knight is released in the UK on July 24th.

19/07/2008 12:02:08