NEW YORK — Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" led the box office with a haul of $84.8 million, a record-setting opening better than the three previous "Lord of the Rings" films.
The Warner Bros. Middle Earth epic was the biggest December opening ever, surpassing Will Smith's "I Am Legend," which opened with $77.2 million in 2007, according to studio estimates Sunday. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" also passed the December opening of "Avatar," which opened with $77 million. Internationally, "The Hobbit" also added $138.2 million, for an impressive global debut of $223 million.
Despite weak reviews, the 3-D adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's first novel in the fantasy series was an even bigger draw than the last "Lord of the Rings" movie, "The Return of the King." That film opened with $72.6 million. "The Hobbit" is the first of another planned trilogy, with two more films to be squeezed out of Tolkien's book.
While Jackson's "Rings" movies drew many accolades — "The Return of the King" won best picture from the Academy Awards — the path for "The Hobbit" has been rockier. It received no Golden Globes nominations on Thursday, though all three "Rings" films were nominated by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for best picture.
Particularly criticized has been the film's 48-frames-per-second (double the usual rate), a hyper-detailed look that some have found jarring. Most moviegoers didn't see "The Hobbit" in that version, though, as the new technology was rolled out in only 461 of the 4,045 theaters playing the film.
Regardless of any misgivings over "The Hobbit," the film was a hit with audiences. They graded the film with an "A'' CinemaScore.
"What's really important, what makes this special is the CinemaScore," said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. "All these things point to a great word of mouth. We haven't even made it to the Christmas holidays yet. Kids are still in school this week."
The strong opening culminated a long journey for "The Hobbit," which was initially delayed when a lawsuit dragged on between Jackson and "Rings" producer New Line Cinema over merchandizing revenue. At one point, Guillermo del Toro was to direct the film with Jackson producing. But eventually the filmmaker opted to direct the movie himself, originally envisioning two "Hobbit" films. The production also went through the bankruptcy of distribution partner MGM and a labor dispute in New Zealand, where the film was shot.
The long delay for "The Hobbit," nearly a decade after the last "Lord of the Rings" film, made it "one of those movies that had everyone scratching their heads as to how it would open," said Paul Dergarabedian, an analyst for box-office tracker Hollywood.com.
"It's been a decade since the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy concluded," said Dergarabedian. "There's been so much anticipation for this film and having Peter Jackson back at the helm just made it irresistible both to fans and the non-initiated alike."
"The Hobbit" was far and away the biggest draw in theaters, with no other new wide release. Paramount's "Rise of the Guardians" continued to draw the family crowd, with $7.4 million, bringing its cumulative total to $71.4 million. The Oscar contender "Lincoln" from Walt Disney crossed the $100 million mark, adding another $7.2 million to bring its six-week total to $107.9 million. And Sony's James Bond film "Skyfall," with another $7 million domestically, drew closer to a global take of $1 billion.
The box office continued to be on the upswing and with anticipated releases like "Les Miserables," ''Django Unchained" and "The Guilt Trip" approaching in the holiday moviegoing season. Dergarabedian expects the year to break the 2009 record of $10.6 billion. With some $10.2 billion in revenue thus far, he said, "We're on track to be in that realm."
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