A Hobbit Holiday: Bilbo Beats Babs and Tom

On a weak pre-Christmas weekend, Streisand and Cruise get coal in their stockings

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New Line Cinema

Like children hiding in wait for Santa Claus, most moviegoers stayed snug in their beds and away from the multiplexes this pre-Christmas weekend. The overall box office dropped 13% from the same time last year, and even the one “hit” was nothing to carol about. In its second frame, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey held on to first place at North American theaters, but Peter Jackson’s return to Tolkien-land remains a fairly lackluster blockbuster. Other legendary names — Tom Cruise! Barbra Streisand! Judd Apatow! Pixar! — opened to numbers that were closer to noughty, as in zero, than nice.

The Hobbit, the first episode in Jackson’s three-movie prequel to his Lord of the Rings trilogy, earned $36.7 million, according to preliminary studio estimates — a 57% drop from last weekend’s less than epic opening. The 10-day domestic total is right around $150 million, which sounds fine but shrivels in comparison to the cash amassed in Dec. 2003 by the Lord of the Rings finale. The Return of the King scored $190.8 million in its first 10 days, which, since ROTK opened on a Wednesday, did not benefit from two full weekends. By its second Sunday, the trilogy climax had taken in a regal $222.3 million, on its way to a North American bounty of $377.8 million and a billion-dollar worldwide revenue, making it just the second film (after Titanic) to cross the ten-digit threshold.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)

Nine years of inflation, plus surcharges for 3-D and IMAX presentations, would lift the ROTK numbers by at least a third. So far The Hobbit has Baggins’d a global gross of $433.9 million, with huge territories such as China and Russia still to come. No one who invested in this superproduction will go broke, but it has an arduous journey before it matches the take of Jackson’s other Tolkien tales.

(SEE: How The Hobbit‘s Groundbreaking Technology Works)

Cruise has been an international star for more than a quarter century. At 50, he’s planning sequels to his first megahit, the 1986 Top Gun, and to his big-bucks Mission: Impossible series. He would like Jack Reacher, his new movie featuring novelist Lee Child’s rogue detective, to launch another franchise of more modest dimensions — a $60-million budget for this gritty thriller, as opposed to $150 million or so for the Impossibles.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Jack Reacher)

The early Reacher numbers aren’t encouraging: $15.6 million at 3,352 theaters. If you discount this summer’s Rock of Ages (a supporting performance) and the 2007 Lions for Lambs (a costarring role in a pro-bono Iraq War talkathon), Reacher marks the lowest debut of the millennium for a Cruise movie that opened in more than 500 theaters. In real dollars, it’s possibly the worst three-day start of his storied career. The movie wasn’t helped by the coincidence of its gunman-mass-murderer plot with the lingering national trauma over the Sandy Hill school shootings. But those who grasped Reacher liked it: early attendees surveyed by the CinemaScore polling outfit gave it a solid A-minus.

(READ: Andrew Sachs’s Q&A with Jack Reacher creator Lee Child)

Two intergenerational comedies aimed at adults creaked into theaters like a pair of octogenarians on walkers. This Is 40, Judd Apatow’s semiautobiographical depiction of an entertainment executive (Paul Rudd), his wife (Apatow spouse Leslie Mann) and two kids (the real-life Mann-Apatow daughters), earned just $12 million. That’s less than half of the $24.9-million average openings of Apatow’s three previous directorial efforts: The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People. No one can say if this is just a midcareer slump for the prolific comedy guru, or the end of the Apatow era. But the B-minus CinemaScore rating doesn’t bode well for This Is 40 to reach even a moderate $60 million at the domestic box office.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of This Is 40)

B-minus was also the CinemaScore for The Guilt Trip, which pairs Apatow alumnus Seth Rogen, 30, with Funny (no-longer-) Girl and Focker mom Streisand, 70. The match wasn’t exactly Bogie and Bacall, let alone Bella and Edward, for today’s audiences; they stayed away in droves, contributing only $5.4 million to the movie’s weekend take, and $7.4 million for the first five days. Grownups are typically too busy shopping this weekend to catch a movie, but they avoided The Guilt Trip as if it were a distasteful exercise in matricide: Throw Mama from the Car. And just to prove they weren’t ageists, moviegoers also shunned the 3-D revival of the 2001 Pixar hit Monsters, Inc., whose teeny $6.5 million opening was the lowest of any Pixar or Disney animated rerelease of the past few years.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Guilt Trip)

Virtually all of the good news for distributors came from limited releases. Zero Dark Thirty, the hunt-for-bin-Laden docudrama from Oscar-winning Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow, parlayed its slew of critics-group awards — and its controversy over a waterboarding torture sequence — into a dynamite $410,000 weekend and $639,000 for the first five days at just five theaters in New York City and Los Angeles. Michael Haneke’s Amour, the octogenarian liebestod story that has won most of the critics’ foreign-film awards, took in a spry $70,700 on three screens.

Three other Oscar hopefuls opened to less imposing receptions. The Impossible, the killer-tsunami drama with a Golden Globe-nominated star turn by Naomi Watts, earned $139,000 at 15 venues; the film has grossed $67 million abroad but will be challenged to make a tenth of that in North America. On the Road, Walter Salles’ film of the Jack Kerouac novel, features ostentatious performances by Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams and Steve Buscemi, scrounged up $43,200 at four N.Y.-L.A. theaters. Not Fade Away, the ’60s age-of-rock memoir by Sopranos creator David Chase, looks like a no-hit wonder: an off-key $19,000 at three houses. As Tony Soprano said more than once, “End of story.”

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, $36.7 million; $149.9 million, second week
2. Jack Reacher, $15.6 million, first weekend
3. This Is 40, $12 million, first weekend
4. Rise of the Guardians,, $5.9 million; $79.7 million, fifth week
5. Lincoln, $5.6 million; $116.8 million, seventh week
6. The Guilt Trip, $5.4 million, first three days; $7.4 million, first five days
7. Monsters, Inc., $5 million, first three days of rerelease; $6.5 million, first five days of rerelease
8. Skyfall, $4.7 million; $280 million, seventh week
9. Life of Pi, $3.8 million; $76.2 million, fifth week
10. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, $2.6 million; $281.6 million, sixth week