Hopes ran higher than a peak in the Shire for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first episode in Peter Jackson’s three-movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 297-page children’s book. The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy had earned $2.9 billion at the worldwide box office, and the final installment, The Return of the King, became just the second movie (after Titanic) to earn a $1 billion global gross.
Nine years later, Tolkienians secured a return ticket to Middle Earth for this early tale of Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) leading Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and 13 dwarves into a mountain cache that holds the sad, scheming Gollum (Andy Serkis). The most eagerly anticipated prequel to a trilogy since Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace 13 years ago would surely open big, but how big? “Predictions vary wildly for The Hobbit,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Grady Smith on Thursday. “Some are predicting a $140 million weekend. Others put it on pace for about $86 million.”
(READ: Corliss’s review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)
You should have taken the under. In fact, if you were a contestant on The Price Is Right, which rewards the closest bid without going over the actual retail value, you would have won by betting $1. The Hobbit did win the weekend at the North American box office with $84.8 million, according to preliminary studio estimates; and it smashed the previous record for a Dec. weekend opening: the $77.2 million rung up in 2007 by the Will Smith-starring I Am Legend. But Legend sold more tickets; in today’s dollars its take would be about $88 million. And Legend earned all of its cash the old-fashioned way, in 2-D. Much of the Hobbit haul came from surcharges for 3-D (at 3,160 theaters), IMAX (on 326 screens) and Jackson’s peculiar 48-frames-per-second Clockwork Orange eye-test (on 460 screens).
(READ: Belinda Luscombe’s Q&A with The Hobbit’s Ian McKellen)
Jackson and his distributor, Warner Bros., had some good news as well. Though some critics were cranky, leading to a modest 65% “fresh” rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website that aggregates reviews, audiences polled by CinemaScore gave The Hobbit a sterling “A” grade, and those under 18 an A-plus, promising excellent word-of-mouth. The early crowd met demographic expectations — 54% male, 58% over 25 — for the prequel to a franchise that’s been dormant for nine years.
(READ: Katy Steinmetz’s interview with ‘Gollum’ Andy Serkis)
And abroad, The Hobbit triumphed, amassing $138 million in 56 foreign markets, not including huge countries like China and Russia, where the movie opens later. That overseas number amounts to 62% of the worldwide gross, in line with the 65% international earnings of the Lord of the Rings films. So the first leg of this Jackson Journey is no flop. The coming weeks will decide if it’s a towering Gandalf-size, billion-dollar hit — or if it can’t outgrow its dwarf supporting cast and settles for the more modest dimensions of, say, $700 million.
(SEE: Ishaan Tharror’s rundown of The Hobbit’s 13 Dwarves)
The Hobbit earned 62% of all domestic movie revenue this weekend, but many holdovers performed smartly. DreamWorks Animation’s Rise of the Guardians held second place with only a 29% drop in this, its fourth week. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, still the front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar, slipped just 19% and passed the $100-million mark. Both the James Bond smash Skyfall (now at $951 million worldwide) and Ang Lee’s visionary sea trip Life of Pi ($69.6 million domestic, $128.5 million abroad) fell an acceptable 35%. Most of these movies will take a back seat when the big Christmas attractions open in the next 10 days, but for now they’re showing sturdy legs; and Lincoln should stay alive throughout the long Oscar campaign of early 2013.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Lincoln)
In indie releases, Academy Award contender Silver Linings Playbook remained a steady provider, adding $2 million on 371 screens for a five-week cume of $17 million, while Oscar hopefuls Anna Karenina ($1 million in 409 theaters, $8.4 million in four weeks) and Hitchcock ($1.1 million at 561 venues, $3 million in four weeks) lagged. Save the Date, the romantic comedy starring Lizzy Caplan and Alison Brie, had a limited opening this weekend; its distributor had not reported grosses as of Sunday afternoon. [UPDATE: Final weekend numbers show that Save the Date earned a wallflowery $3,755 at two theaters.]
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Save the Date)
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, $84.8 million, first weekend
2. Rise of the Guardians, $7.4 million; $71.4 million, fourth week
3. Lincoln, $7.1 million; $107.9 million, sixth week
4. Skyfall, $7 million; $272.4 million, sixth week
5. Life of Pi, $5.4 million; $69.6 million, fourth week
6. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, $5.2 million; $276.9 million, fifth week
7. Wreck-It Ralph, $3.3 million; $168.8 million, seventh week
8. Playing for Keeps, $3.2 million; $10.8 million, second week
9. Red Dawn, $2.4 million; $40.9 million, fourth week
10. Silver Linings Playbook, $2.1 million; $17 million, fifth week