"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

Franchise Starter Scores Third-Best Chinese Opening for Warner

It’s a completely different scene since the residents of Middle Earth last visited China.

Nearly a decade ago, Peter Jackson’s final “Lord of the Rings” offering, “The Return of the King,” topped out at the Chinese box office with a mere $10.4 million. In total, the three “Rings” films, which were released in China by local distribs, earned just north of $20 million locally.

That was then. But now, with a booming infrastructure, especially for premium-format films, Warner Bros.’ local bow of Jackson’s 3D prequel, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” already nearly matched the combined “Rings” tally, with $18.1 million on 4,009 screens, making it China’s fourth-highest three-day opening ever. Imax alone contributed 12%, at $2.1 million.

China Film released the official figure Monday.

The mainland opening boosted “The Hobbit” to nearly $680 million internationally, with just $20 million shy of $1 billion worldwide. The Chinese run — its final overseas push — should lift the film past that threshold, making it only the 15th film to do so.

The film’s opening in China, which marks a slight improvement on Sunday’s $17.8 million estimate, also ranks as Warner’s third-highest debut locally, behind “The Dark Knight Rises” ($31 million) and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” ($29.7 million). However, those pics had seven-day and four-day openings in China, respectively.

The modest performance of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy in China is a product of changing times: Firstly, Chinese exhibition only began to swell over the past few years. In turn, China has grown to become the world’s second-largest market behind the U.S., eclipsing Japan for the first time last year.

“The Hobbit” also benefited from having Imax, not to mention 3D, with Chinese auds greatly embracing the format, and a strong localized marketing push from Warners. The film, however, will not screen in 48 frames per second as it did in the U.S., since high-frame-rate is not yet available on the mainland.

Up next in China are Universal’s “Les Miserables” on Feb. 28 and Fox’s “A Good Day to Die Hard” in March.

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