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Long Distance Box Office: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Source:   Edward Douglas
November 5, 2012


We've been slightly waylaid by travels, hurricanes and power outages, but we want to look ahead to December and what is likely to be the last big blockbuster of 2012. Of course, we're talking about Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, his long-awaited return to Middle-earth, following the three blockbuster "The Lord of the Rings" movies released between 2001 and 2003.

It's been nine years since those movies, but the fanbase has remained alive thanks to sites like TheOneRing.net who have kept the hope alive that one day Jackson would direct a movie based on J.R.R. Tolkien's first Middle-earth novel. As it happens, they're not just going to get one movie now, but three! The first of them opens on Friday, December 14 in roughly the same general period of the year as those movies and one can certainly expect that the fans who stuck through the long wait will be there at midnight or sometime soon thereafter.

The Hobbit is an interesting anomaly since it's the first chapter of a prequel trilogy, something which has only been attempted once before with George Lucas' "Star Wars" trilogy, three movies that proved hugely successful for Lucasfilm. Mind you, J.R.R. Tolkien's book "The Hobbit," which was a similar precursor for "The Lord of the Rings," was only one book, so the fact it's being divided up into three movies, previously two, is somewhat dubious, because it makes you wonder if there's enough material to fill three movies, especially if any of them match the three hours of the "Rings' movies.

All three of the "Lord of the Rings" movies opened on a Wednesday, which theoretically could have taken business away from the weekend, although that frontloading only started kicking in with the two sequels. The first movie "The Fellowship of the Ring" did $18.2 million its opening day in 2001 and $47.2 million in its first weekend for a total of $74.4 million in its first five days, which is comparable to Batman Begins and other blockbusters. It went on to gross $315 by the time it left theaters, helped in part by a Best Picture nomination—and mind you, that was back when AMPAS was only nominating five movies in the category! The sequel "The Two Towers" opened a year later with $26.2 million its opening day, a nice bump from the first movie, and making $102 million in its first five days and its domestic gross went up to $342 million. The finale "The Return of the King" had the biggest opening, having built up a strong audience from two previous movies, with an opening day of $34.5 million and $124.1 million in its first five days. It ended up grossing $378 million total domestically and $1.1 billion globally, and this time, it ended up winning just about every Oscar for which it was nominated, including one for Jackson's direction.

Since making the "Lords of the Rings" movies, Jackson went on to remake King Kong for Universal Pictures in 2005 and adapting Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones. The former was a bigger hit, amassing $218 million domestically while the latter only made $44 million and failed to get the Oscar love many were expecting.

A long time has passed since "The Lord of the Rings," and other than the diehard fans, audiences may be slightly more tentative about "The Hobbit," partially because the first chapter doesn't promise as much of the action the last two movies will have. Even so, it is a movie that many moviegoers will be curious to see if only to determine whether Jackson was able to pull off what has taken him so long to accomplish. (It's more than a little frustrating that they'll have to wait nearly nineteen months to find out the answer to that question.)

One good thing going for the three "Hobbit" movies is that Tolkien's novel was geared more towards younger audiences, which could translate to more family business for the prequel than the "Lord of the Rings" movies, although Jackson has stated that he's trying to make the prequels feel like the initial trilogy and may not water down the violence. We expect them all to be PG-13.

Another thing going for the movie is that Jackson filmed it in 3D and not just any 3D, but using the latest high-tech upgrade to 3D, shooting it in 48 frames per second - which some of you may remember us discussing back in April, following our first experience with it at CinemaCon. While it's too early to tell how many theaters will be screening the movie at the full 48 fps, the fact that most moviegoers will want to see the movie as Jackson shot it will mean that The Hobbit will already be selling tickets at significantly higher prices than any of the "Rings" films.

We think the movie might open softer than some expect, partially because it is coming out mere weeks before Christmas, which tends to limit the amount of moviegoers who have money to spend on movies since they're saving for presents. This phenomenon can be seen with James Cameron's Avatar, which opened on the same weekend in 2009 with $77 million, but it went on to gross $760.5 million, nearly 10 times its opening weekend, becoming the highest-grossing movie both domestically and worldwide.

While the first "Hobbit" movie may not have any direct competition its opening weekend, at least in wide release, it starts seeing an influx of movies starting on December 19 and more added on the 21st and 25th and while a good deal of them should do business based on early awards buzz (or just cause they look entertaining), that shouldn't put too much of a damper on The Hobbit's potential legs. No one should be too surprised if The Hobbit is #1 for a solid week, and then makes its way back to that spot by the New Year.

Despite the potential for the movie's long-term box office, we think its going to open fairly modestly, probably with $27 to 29 million its opening day (including midnights) and $85 to 87 million opening weekend, maybe slightly more, but it won't set any opening weekend records. With the holidays ahead and the long legs we expect the movie to have, one shouldn't be surprised if it matches the $320 to 350 million of some of the "Lords of the Rings" movies. Like those movies, we think that each movie will do progressively more business opening weekend as well.

Next week (or so), we'll be back looking at the annual Christmas craziness, when every studio tries to throw out something that will interest moviegoers and only a few of them will be hits.


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