Martin Freeman stars in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (Warner Bros. )
"The Hobbit" went on a bit of an unexpected journey at the box office this weekend, as the film came in well below industry expectations.
Heading into the weekend, pre-release audience polling suggested that the first installment in Peter Jackson's prequel to "The Lord of the Rings" franchise could debut with anywhere between $120 million and $140 million. Instead, the 3-D film grossed $84.8 million during its first three days in theaters, according to an estimate from distributor Warner Bros.
Of course, that's still a good opening, and the biggest one ever for the month of December -- not adjusting for inflation. But the movie -- which cost a whopping $250 million to produce -- still has a lot to prove.
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On the positive side, while reviews for the picture were decidedly mixed, those who saw the film this weekend loved it, meaning word-of-mouth for the movie could be strong. The crowd -- 57% of whom were male, and 58% of whom were over the age of 25 -- gave the movie an average grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore.
But the movie will also need to be a hit overseas for its financial backers Warner Bros., New Line and MGM to end up happy. The movie debuted in 55 foreign countries this weekend, though international figures were not yet available early Sunday.
Warner Bros. also did not have a detailed breakdown on how the 461 theaters showing the film at 48 frames-per-second performed. The format -- which is twice as fast as the 24 frames-per-second movies are typically shown at -- has been derided by critics for its ultra-realistic nature, which some have likened to BBC television productions.
Dan Fellman, the studio's president of domestic distribution, said that he spoke to representatives from AMC Entertainment and IMAX Entertainment early Sunday morning, who told him “the reaction from the audience was very positive.”
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Indeed, Greg Foster, IMAX's chairman and president, said screens showing the movie at 48 frames-per-second outperformed screens playing it in different formats. In North America, the per-screen average for 48 frames-per-second locations was $44,000 vs. $31,000 for other formats.
“I do think we have a very specific fanboy, geek-based audience -- the guys who like to stand in line to see these things first,” acknowledged Foster. “Most IMAX fans are less focused on actors and more focused on directors, and Peter Jackson has been such a strong advocate of 48 frames. There was a real interest to see it this way, and we didn’t have one complaint all weekend.”
Overall, 49% of those who saw the movie this weekend opted to shell out a few more dollars to watch it in 3-D.
"The Hobbit," which clocks in at nearly three hours, is based on J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 children's book about a hobbit attempting to help a group of dwarves reclaim their treasure from an evil dragon. Despite the fact that the book is not broken up into parts -- unlike Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy -- Jackson has decided to turn the author's novel into three movies.
"The Lord of the Rings" film series, whose final entry was released in 2003, became one of the highest-grossing franchises of all time. The three films collected more than $2.9 billion worldwide, and the last film "The Return of the King" also won best picture at the Academy Awards.
It remains to be seen if "The Hobbit" will match that type of financial and critical success, though Fellman was optimistic about the film's prospects.
“We took a chance opening the film up before Christmas, but the window was there for us. There wasn’t another strong movie coming out this weekend,” he said. “My feeling was that if we could have $100 million in the bank before the holiday kicks in, we’d be in great shape. So I don’t have any regrets.”