Forecast: 'Smaug' Poised to Open Lower Than First 'Hobbit'
Midnight Update: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opened to $8.8 million at midnight, which is the second-highest midnight performance ever in December. Unfortunately, it ranks second behind last year's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which brought in $13 million at midnight. That's a 32 percent decline—if Smaug continues at that pace through the rest of the weekend, it will open to a very disappointing $58 million.

Of course, using midnight grosses to project the full weekend is far from an exact science. And it is entirely possible that Desolation of Smaug's attendance is more spread out throughout the weekend. However, this is a pretty clear sign that excitement just isn't as high this time around—as a result, it's now safe to say that Smaug will not come close to matching An Unexpected Journey's $84.6 million debut.

Forecast: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is set to dominate the box office this weekend, though the middling response to the first movie will mute grosses a bit this time around. Meanwhile, Tyler Perry's A Madea's Christmas should leverage the strong Perry/Madea brand in to a robust second place debut.

Desolation of Smaug is the second of three Lord of the Rings prequels, and reaches theaters almost exactly a year after The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Coming off The Lord of the Rings movies—undoubtedly one of the most successful and beloved franchises ever—An Unexpected Journey was a massive box office success ($300 million domestic, $1 billion worldwide). Unfortunately, reactions were somewhat mixed: while the movie satisfied die-hard fans, casual viewers seemed to be more lukewarm.

Typically, when a first installment receives middling reactions, the second outing takes a hit at the box office. Recognizing this, Warner Bros. has put together a marketing campaign that seems tailor-made to address the complaints with the first one. Instead of focusing on the dwarves and Bilbo, advertising highlights the return of fan favorite character Legolas, and introduces a butt-kicking female elf Tauriel (played by Lost's Evangeline Lilly). Ads also hype up the confrontation with the dragon Smaug, which is the kind of exciting set piece that the first movie lacked.

Finally, recent material has attempted to make the "quality" argument, with one critic quote in particular suggesting that the movie is an improvement over the first. Critics do seem to generally agree that Smaug is a step up, though the movie's 73 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes still pales in comparison to the nearly universal love for the Lord of the Rings franchise.

Unfortunately, the more exciting marketing effort and marginally better reviews are unlikely to completely undo the damage done by An Unexpected Journey. It also doesn't help that there's more competition in the marketplace this year: holdovers Catching Fire and Frozen are still making money, A Madea Christmas should open well, and Anchorman 2 is just a few days away. An Unexpected Journey opened to $84.6 million—don't be surprised if Desolation of Smaug starts off closer to $70 million.

Regardless of how it does at the domestic box office, though, Smaug is still going to be a success thanks to its worldwide appeal. While it may not be able to match its predecessor's $714 million overseas haul, it's hard to imagine it earning a dime less than $600 million.

Opening at 2,194 locations, A Madea Christmas is prolific filmmaker Tyler Perry's 14th movie in the past eight years. The previous 13 outings have combined to earn over $674 million at the domestic box office. The top three of those movies all feature the character Madea, a wise-cracking African-American woman played by a cross-dressing, fat-suit-wearing Perry.

As a continuation of the Madea brand, the prospects for Madea Christmas are already strong. It also helps that Lionsgate has executed an appealing marketing campaign focused on the amusing image of Madea in a Santa suit, which will likely broaden the audience beyond that of a typical Perry movie.

Eight of Perry's 13 movies have opened over $20 million; the only other filmmakers with as many $20 million debuts are Robert Zemeckis (nine) and Steven Spielberg (11). A Madea Christmas should get there as well, and will hold better than most Perry movies thanks to its tie-in with the upcoming Christmas holiday.

Ahead of nationwide expansions on Dec. 20th, Saving Mr. Banks and American Hustle are opening in limited release this weekend. At 15 locations, Mr. Banks tells the story of how Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) got author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to sign off on the big-screen adaptation of Mary Poppins. Reviews are solid, though this is the kind of movie that will have more appeal among general audiences than it will with the arthouse crowds who will get a chance to see it it this weekend.

Meanwhile, David O. Russell's American Hustle opens at six theaters. Coming off The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, Russell's brand is at an all-time high, and he's assembled a dream team cast that includes The Fighter's Christian Bale and Amy Adams and Silver Linings Playbook's Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

It doesn't hurt that the movie is receiving great reviews (97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and plenty of awards attention (a leading seven Golden Globe nominations). On this same weekend three years ago, The Fighter averaged $75,003 at four theaters, which is a figure American Hustle should be able to match.

Forecast (Dec. 13-15)

1. The Hobbit - $70.9 million

2. Madea Christmas - $27.9 million

3. Frozen - $21.6 million (-32%)

4. Catching Fire - $13.9 million (-47%)

Bar for Success

Desolation of Smaug doesn't need to match the first movie's $84 million opening, but it ought to be getting close. Anything above $75 million is fine. Meanwhile Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas is in good shape if it opens to at least $20 million.

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