Smaug Alert: Hobbit Sequel Thaws Frozen, Manhandles Madea

The Peter Jackson sequel does O.K., not great, as Tyler Perry stumbles and 'American Hustle' opens strong

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Trembling in the wrathful presence of an enormous dragon, the Hobbit Bilbo tries flattery: “Truly songs and tales fall utterly short of your enormity, O Smaug the Stupendous!” The opening weekend for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second episode in Peter Jackson’s trilogy based on the J.R.R. Tolkien prequel book to The Lord of the Rings, came in just this side of stupendous.

The $73.7 million Smaug earned in North American theaters, according to preliminary studio estimates, fell a bit short of industry expectations and of the $84.6 million registered by its Hobbit predecessor, An Unexpected Journey, this same weekend last year. Blizzard conditions along most of the East Coast may have kept some moviegoers home. But Smaug still notched the fourth strongest opening of any Dec. movie — after An Unexpected JourneyI Am Legend and Avatar — and banked a cache of gold substantial enough to appease any questing Dwarf.

(SEE: The 13 actors who play the Dwarves in the Hobbit movies)

[MONDAY UPDATE: According to actual weekend figures issued this afternoon, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug finished at $73.6 million, just $30,000 off the Sunday estimate. Frozen was up 2%, to $22.6 million; and Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas was right on the $16-million bitton. In limited release, American Hustle earned $690,000 in six theaters, for the year’s best per-screen average. Saving Mr, Banks earned $421,000 in 15 venues.]

Smaug had one thing that An Unexpected Journey didn’t: competition from other popular fantasy films. The Disney princess musical Frozen, in second place, took in a solid $22.2 million — more than the $20.7-million total of the next three movies behind Journey last year. Frozen has now earned $164.4 million in North America and $266 million worldwide. The fall’s reigning box-office behemoth, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, earned another $13.1 million, pushing its 24-day domestic total past the $350-million mark and its worldwide gross to $730 million.
(READ: Fantasy fan Lev Goldman’s trip to Middle Earth, N.Z.

The second installment in a franchise is supposed to open higher than the first. The first weekend for Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones was 20% above that of The Phantom Menace; and Catching Fire earned $6 million more than its predecessor. Can Smaug pick up speed over the long Christmas season? That may be a challenge, seeing as early attendees gave the movie a CinemaScore of A-minus, a notch below their rating for An Unexpected Journey. The audience was also more skewed toward males: 60% this time, as opposed to 54% for the first film.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)

But first weekends in the U.S. and Canada may not be truly predictive of a movie’s ultimate revenue. The first Hunger Games enjoyed a sensational opening of $152.5 million in March 2012 and grossed $408 million in North America, but failed to attract a like number of fans abroad — just 41% of the global total — and ended up short of $700 million worldwide. An Unexpected Journey took in a more modest $303 million at the domestic box office but more than $700 million overseas to cross the billion-dollar worldwide threshold. If Smaug can match that 70% foreign gross, it’ll do fine. In its first weekend, the movie took in $131.2 million abroad, or 64% of its $204.9-million global gross so far.

(READ: A Parental Plea — Don’t Make Me See Smaug!)

The one other wide opening, Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas, started surprisingly slow, finishing in third place with a reported $16 million — a much lower start than for any of the previous seven movies starring Perry as the bossy matriarch Mabel “Madea” Simmons. Aimed at African-American women of a certain age, Christmas attracted an audience that was 67% female, 63% older than 25. As the “A” CinemaScore attests, they liked what they saw; they just didn’t bring along enough of their friends. The movie has a chance to catch up, since it is the one Christmas-themed (and specifically Christian-themed) film of the 2013 holidays.

(READ: Corliss’s review of A Madea Christmas)

In limited release, the ’70s-set comedy-drama American Hustle opened in six theaters to $690,000, for a per-screen average of $115,000. If it holds up, that would top the $102,000 PSA for the six-theater debut of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine as the best of 2013. The David O. Russell Hustle, which has already won critics’ awards and guild nominations for its glittering ensemble cast of Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner, opens wide this weekend. Expect huge.

(FIND: American Hustle and Amy Adams on TIME’s 10 Best lists for 2013)

Another film going wide on Friday, Saving Mr. Banks opened in 15 theaters and amassed a less flashy $421,000. In this true-life fable about the making of the 1964 Mary Poppins movie, Tom Hanks stars as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as author P.L. Travers. The picture may lure Christmas-time audiences looking for some pulsing sentiment. After sampling the latest Disney-princess movie, admirers of the Magic Kingdom may want to see a Walt Disney movie about Walt Disney.

(READ: Corliss’s sheepish review of Saving Mr. Banks)

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: The Desolation of Smaug, $73.7 million, first weekend
2. Frozen, $22.2 million; $164.4 million, fourth week
3. Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas, $16.2 million, first weekend
4. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, $13.15 million; $357 million, fourth week
5. Thor: The Dark World, $2.7 million; $198.1 million, sixth week
6. Out of the Furnace, $2.3 million; $9.5 million, second week
7. Delivery Man, $1.9 million; $28 million, fourth week
8. Philomena, $1.8 million; $11 million, fourth week
9. The Book Thief, $1.7 million; $14.9 million, sixth week
10. Homefront, $1.6 million; $18.4 million, third week