Weekend box office: 'The Hobbit' opens well below predictions

Dwarves surround Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, center) in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."

Photo by James Fisher, © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. (US, Canada & New Line Foreign Territories) © 201

Dwarves surround Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, center) in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."

"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.

On the positive side, although 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 percent of which was male, and 58 percent of which was over age 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 56 foreign countries this weekend and collected $138.2 million. The picture performed best in the United Kingdom, where it sold $18.3 million, but it also did strong business in Germany and France. The film has yet to open in a few major markets, including Australia and Russia.

Warner Bros. did not have a detailed breakdown on how the 461 theaters showing the film at 48 frames per second performed. The format - twice as fast as movies traditionally have been 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 he spoke with representatives from AMC Entertainment and IMAX early Sunday, who told him that "the reaction from the audience was very positive."

Indeed, Greg Foster, IMAX Entertainment's chairman and president, said screens showing the movie at 48 frames per second outperformed those playing it in other formats. In North America, the per-screen average for 48 frames-per-second locations was $44,000 versus $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 percent 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 dwarfs 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 decided to turn it 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 installment, "The Return of the King," also won best picture at the Academy Awards.

It remains to be seen whether "The Hobbit" will match that type of financial and critical success, though Fellman is 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."

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