Tolkien epic sets record for best Stateside Dec. opening with $84.8 mil

What’s likely to be at the top of Warner Bros.’ Christmas wishlist? A billion-dollar “Hobbit.”

The first of three installments, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” hunkered down for what should be a sizable global run, drawing $223 million this weekend, of which $138.2 million came from international plexes. The movie earned $84.8 million domestically, lower than the most bullish estimates but enough to be the largest Stateside December bow ever.

Pic’s A CinemaScore heightens its potential to reach that 10-figure global sum. Historically, many films have long legs during the holiday — and with Christmas on a Tuesday this year, most auds will have a long “weekend” through New Year’s.

Warners released “The Hobbit” day-and-date this weekend in 56 overseas territories. The U.K. and Germany led with $18.3 million and $16.3 million, respectively.

Before the weekend, domestic projections for the New Line-MGM co-production had ranged from $80 million to upwards of $125 million. But kids still were in school on Friday. Also, 3D — along with the pic’s flagship 48 fps format — contributed only 49% of the weekend gross, a much smaller share than expected but in line with how the format has performed.

“To accomplish this kind of opening with a big chunk of our audience (i.e., students) unable to go Friday is remarkable,” said Warner domestic distribution prexy Dan Fellman. “It sets us up nicely for those glorious Christmas holiday weekdays.”

Globally, “The Hobbit” debut stands as the second-biggest ever for this month, behind “Avatar,” which earned $242.5 million worldwide during opening weekend in 2009. Stateside, “The Hobbit” beat 2007′s “I Am Legend,” the previous December Stateside recordholder, which debuted to $77.2 million domestically.

Holdovers were led by Paramount-DreamWorks Animation’s “Rise of the Guardians,” which fell 29% in its fourth frame with $7.4 million. Disney-DreamWorks’ “Lincoln” (which on Thursday became the Golden Globes noms leader) fared even better, falling just 19% in its sixth outing for a weekend take of $7.2 million.

Domestic cume on “Guardians” is $71.4 million; “Lincoln,” with almost $108 million Stateside, became the 25th film this year to cross the nine-figure domestic threshold.

‘Hobbit’ dwarfs ‘Ring’ pics

Because Christmas falls mid-week, Warner decided (with Peter Jackson’s backing, Fellman said) to break from its “Lord of the Rings” tradition and launch “The Hobbit” a week early. The strategy paid off, as the pic beat the debut of “Return of the King,” the “Rings” pic with the largest Stateside bow at $72.6 million.

The week-early launch pad (which accounted for the kids-still-in-school factor) made a nine-figure “Hobbit” debut extremely iffy, despite some pundits’ lofty projections. Another factor is the pic’s nearly three-hour runtime, whic h made latenight showtimes a much harder sell, especially for older audiences. Movie skewed 58% over 25.

“A long movie definitely loses showtimes,” Fellman said. “That’s why we secure as many prints as possible to offset the runtime.”

“Hobbit” should see topnotch playability over the next several months, likely matching the Stateside multiples of its “Rings” predecessors. “Return of the King,” for instance, grossed more than five times its opening, with $377 million domestically. If “The Hobbit” plays similarly, the pic could reach upwards of $400 million Stateside.

Internationally, “The Hobbit” did better than “Return of the King,” which collected $125 million in its opening weekend. That pic cumed $742 million overseas for a $1.1 billion global tally.

“This incredible journey has inspired passionate fans around the world, who could not wait to return to Middle-earth, this time with Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves,” said Veronika Kwan Vandenberg, prexy of international distribution at Warner. “These impressive results speak to the universal appeal of this story.”

“Hobbit” still has a few major markets yet to go , starting with Russia on Friday, then Australia on Boxing Day (Dec. 26). Pic has yet to receive a release date in China; that territory contributed roughly $10 million for “King,” a low bar nowadays on the mainland.

Imax scores with 48 fps

Globally, Imax chipped in with $15.1 million, including $10.1 million from 326 Stateside screens. Not surprisingly, “The Hobbit” saw its best 3D high frame rate results in Imax, which averaged $44,000 per 48 fps location vs. the pic’s overall $31,000 per-screen average. Warner managed to secure 461 HFR playdates, of which Imax had 60.

“Our fanboys have always encouraged us to explore and experiment with new technologies that take advantage of the Imax canvas,” said Imax prexy Greg Foster. “It’s clear over the last three days that our core audience is responding well to ‘The Hobbit’ in high frame rate.”

Each pic in the “Hobbit” trilogy is expected to cost around $235 million (there’s still post work being done on the latter two). Collectively, the “Lord of the Rings” franchise earned nearly $3 billion worldwide theatrically. And Warner Bros. is exerting plenty of muscle to glean as much coin as it can from “The Hobbit” in various retail spaces.

Specialty expansions strong

There were a few solid expansions at the specialty box office this weekend, including Focus Features’ “Hyde Park on Hudson,” which averaged more than $8,000 from 36 locations. Cume is nearly $410,000 in two weeks.

Meanwhile, Fox Searchlight broadened “Hitchcock” to 561 theaters, up from 181. It grossed $1.1 million for a $3 million Stateside cume.

Music Box Films did well launching gay-themed “Any Day Now,” which ranked No. 1 at more than half of its 16 debut locations. Pic grossed an estimated $41,000 for a per-screen average of $2,563. The distrib expands “Day” to six more Stateside markets on Friday.

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