Forecast: 'The Hobbit' Expected to Set December Opening Record
Midnight Update: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opened to an incredible $13 million from 3,100 midnight locations. That may not seem like much when compared to record-holder Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 ($43.5 million) or this Summer's The Dark Knight Rises ($27 million), but for a December release that's a massive figure. In fact, it's three times as much as Avatar made at midnight ($3.537 million), and also way up on I Am Legend's $1.7 million. I Am Legend is the current December opening weekend record-holder with $77.2 million, which The Hobbit is now guaranteed to pass by the end of the weekend.

Forecast:Nine years after The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King earned over $1.1 billion worldwide and won 11 Academy Awards, director Peter Jackson is taking audiences back to Middle Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Based on goodwill alone from The Lord of the Rings, this first entry in the prequel trilogy is guaranteed to set a new December opening weekend record in 4,045 theaters (which is the widest release ever in December).

The project has been fighting an uphill battle against a wave of pessimism as of late, though, and the backwards-looking marketing effort isn't doing the movie any favors either. As a result, a three-day start north of $100 million is probably not going to happen.

In late 1999 director Peter Jackson—who had previously made mostly low-budget horror movies—embarked on one of the most ambitious (and also riskiest) movie projects ever when he filmed all three Lord of the Rings adaptations simultaneously in New Zealand. That risk wound up paying huge dividends for everyone involved, as the movies went on to be massive critical and commercial successes.

The first outing, Fellowship of the Ring, opened in December 2001 and ultimately earned $313.4 million at the domestic box office, and the following December The Two Towers grossed $339.8 million. In December 2003, final chapter The Return of the King opened to $124.1 million in its first five days before closing with $377 million. All in, the three movies earned over $2.9 billion worldwide on a budget of roughly $300 million.

Aside from being big moneymakers, the movies also managed to score with critics (all were above 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), audiences (all three are in IMDb's Top 25), and awards groups (17 Oscars, including 11 for Return of the King). As a result, this franchise has a ton of goodwill built up, and is one of the strongest brands in movies today.

Because The Lord of the Rings is so beloved, Warner Bros. marketing has gone to great lengths to highlight The Hobbit's association with that trilogy. Not only do all advertisements include an explicit reference to that franchise, but they also prominently feature Lord of the Rings characters like Gandalf, Gollum, and even Galadriel (who is reportedly barely in the movie). While it's obviously important to make use of this positive connection, the resulting campaign hasn't made much of an attempt to point out what's special about this movie.

The Hobbit is also garnering some negative buzz due to two controversial decisions made by the filmmakers. First, the choice to shoot the movie at 48 frames-per-second and project it in some locations (461, to be exact) in that "HFR" format was initially viewed as a potential game changer for the movie industry. Instead, those who have seen the movie in this format have almost unanimously bashed it, and it has subsequently been a huge (and overwhelmingly negative) part of the conversation in the past few weeks.

More important, though, is the decision to make a trilogy out of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, which is a light-hearted book aimed at younger audiences that runs around 300 pages; in comparison, The Lord of the Rings was a dense 1,000 pages. Even after using some of Tolkien's appendices to fill it out, most reviewers complain that the movie doesn't earn its 170 minute runtime, and that for at least the first half it's outright boring. As of Thursday afternoon, The Hobbit is at an underwhelming 69 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

Of course, it's important to remember that mainstream audiences probably aren't paying very close attention to the HFR and trilogy debates, or to the disappointing reviews. But it's undeniable that these issues aren't going to help opening weekend box office, and surely some casual moviegoers will revert to a wait-and-see approach.

Because of holiday distractions, opening weekend box office in December tends to be much lower than it would be if the same titles opened elsewhere on the calendar. The current opening weekend record holder is I Am Legend with $77.2 million, though The Return of the King would almost certainly have that record if it hadn't burned off demand with Wednesday debuts. Even with some of the previously-mentioned issues, The Hobbit has enough going for it (goodwill, 3D/IMAX premiums) to easily set a new record. It will take Return of the King-level attendance, though, to crack $100 million, and that seems unlikely.

Even if The Hobbit has a slightly underwhelming start this weekend, it is still very well-positioned long-term. It will inevitably hold on to first place through the holiday season, and it's hard to imagine a scenario where it falls short of $300 million at the domestic box office.

It's looking even better overseas where it debuts in 55 markets this weekend, including all of the majors except for China, Russia and Australia. Return of the King earned $742 million overseas, and with rapid expansion in markets like China and Russia in the nine years since it's a foregone conclusion that The Hobbit will also net over $700 million from foreign markets.

Forecast (Dec. 14-16)

1. The Hobbit - $94.5 million

2. {lnk110935}Lincoln{/lnk} - $6.8 million (-24%)

3. Rise of the Guardians - $6.5 million (-38%)

4. Skyfall - $5.7 million (-47%)

5. Life of Pi - $5.4 million (-35%)

Bar for Success

At an absolute minimum, The Hobbit needs to break I Am Legend's $77.2 million December record. After that, it's officially in very good shape if it cracks $90 million this weekend.

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'Lord of the Rings' Stories:

'King' of the World: $250M in 5 Days

'Rings' Brings $51.5M in 2 Days Domestically

'Return of the King' Rakes in $57.6M Worldwide on Opening Day

Dear 'Lord!' 'Rings' Towers Over the December Box Office

'Lord of the Rings' Eclipses 'Return of the Jedi'

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