Warner Bros. pic could make up to $125 million domestically

For all the talk about the international boom, the domestic box office could be a world-beater this weekend, as the $100 million-plus Stateside projection for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” will rival overseas totals while stomping December records.

With a projected upside of $125 million domestic and an estimated $135 abroad, Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” prequel should easily beat the biggest December worldwide bow, held by “Avatar,” with $242.5 million. “I Am Legend” holds the domestic December record with $77.2 million in 2007.

A robust market and hearty “Hobbit” advanced ticket sales justify the eight-figure projection, though some observers peg the Warner Bros. pic lower, especially with kids still in school.

While “Hobbit” should claim domestic and global trophies, its international take won’t eclipse that of “Avatar,” which bowed a week later in 2009 to $165.5 million overseas. But that pic benefited from top debuts in Russia ($21 million) and Australia ($11 million) — two markets where “The Hobbit” will not open this weekend. Neither film bowed day-and-date in China.

“Hobbit” already bagged $11.2 million Wednesday from 16 markets, including France, Germany and Scandinavia.

Warners is launching the New Line-MGM co-prodution in 55 offshore territories, totaling roughly 17,000 screens vs. “Avatar’s” 14,500 during opening weekend.

Warners bows “The Hobbit” today at 4,045 domestic locations, including 3,160 3D playdates, of which 461 are 48fps and more than 300 are Imax. The sheer number of “Hobbit” theatrical versions — six, with the advent of 3D 48fps — will boost box office, thanks to premium ticket prices. However, early word-of-mouth for the high frame rate format has been mixed.

Audiences have been starved for new product of late; only three films — none of which hit double digits — have opened wide over the past two weekends.

Films typically do leg out extremely well during this time frame, though playability for “The Hobbit” is not as certain. The fanbase for the literary classic, as well as the subsequent “Lord of the Rings” film franchise, certainly will boost the pic, but early response has been on the fence, which could dampen prospects.

In 2003, the final “Lord of the Rings” outing, “Return of the King,” grossed $378 million Stateside for a global tally of $1.1 billion. The franchise’s previous installment, “The Two Towers,” reached $926 million worldwide (including $342 million domestically), while the original “Rings” grossed $871 million globally, with a Stateside cume of $315 million.

If all goes well for “The Hobbit” domestically, the film could gross upwards of $450 million, depending on how big it opens and how well the rest of the year’s holiday pics play.

Warners and all other financing partners should have no concerns of the “Hobbit” franchise turning a profit. “An Unexpected Journey,” along with the second and third “Hobbit” installments, “The Desolation of Smaug” and “There and Back Again,” together cost more than $600 million to produce. “Smaug” will launch this time next year, while “Back Again” is set to bow July 18, 2014.

Hoping to withstand the “Hobbit” steamroller is the market’s list of holdovers that includes Disney-DreamWorks’ Golden Globe noms leader “Lincoln,” which crossed $100 million on Thursday. Last weekend’s B.O. leader, Sony-MGM’s “Skyfall,” which scored an original song nom, reached $264 million domestically.

Fox Searchlight’s “Hitchcock,” which received a single nomination for lead actress Helen Mirren, expands to 562 playdates. Focus Features’ “Hyde Park on Hudson” — nommed for Bill Murray’s lead actor turn — widens to 36.

“Hitchcock” has cumed nearly $2 million in three weeks domestically; “Hudson,” meanwhile, reached $104,000 entering its second frame.

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