The Hobbit
'The Hobbit'

Pre-Christmas weekends vary wildly in performance year by year, depending on where the dates fall (the closer to Christmas, the worse the business until December 25) and the strength of new openings. With the debuting films this year ranging for modest to weak, whatever strength there was came from the second week of "The Hobbit," which took a steep (but not unusual) fall from its smaller-than-expected opening. The result is a so-so total gross at best.

It looks like the fate of this holiday is in the hands of next Tuesday's highly anticipated openers, "Les Miserables" and "Django Unchained" as well as "Parental Guidance." After an adult-and "Twilight"-driven superb Thanksgiving, Christmas could prove a letdown. But that remains to be seen: when Christmas comes, every weekday is a Saturday and audiences rebound in the largest numbers of the year.

Apart from the top tem, the other big news is the strong weekend gross of Sony's "Zero Dark 30," which took in $410,000 in only five theaters. Though not a record-setter for a platform release, the film's 2 hour 39-minute running time and weak pre-Christmas doldrums-- without the ability to have unlimited seating as theaters are fully booked at the moment, unlike when previous platform records were set--kept the gross from being even bigger. This and other limited releases (including Lionsgate's "The Impossible") will be covered in more detail in Arthouse Audit.

1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Warner Brothers) Week 2 - Last Weekend: #1

$36,705,000 (-57%) in 4,100 theaters (+55); PSA (per screen average): $8,952; Cumulative: $149,858,000

Much of the substantial drop can be attributed to normal second week slide after a huge opening - the decline is actually less than either "Breaking Dawn Part 2" or "The Dark Knight Rises." And the soft pre-holiday playtime is no help. But "The Hobbit" faced weak competition, and opened up far less well than either of those films. It also benefits from 3-D and other surcharges which increase its ticket prices.

The result is something of a mixed bag - this looks to be the biggest December release since "Avatar" three years ago, but doesn't look (even without adjusting for higher prices) to rival the take for "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" in 2003-04, even less the top-grossing films released for 2010. Worldwide is quite strong (the worldwide total should already be at $400 million), with Christmas still ahead. But with the expense of the production and two sequels to come, the performance, though certainly enough to make everyone money, doesn't look quite strong enough for this series to fill the void left for Warner Brothers after the end of the "Harry Potter" films.

What comes next: A battle with "Les Miserables" and "Django Unchained" for top spot next week.

2. Jack Reacher (Paramount) NEW - Cinemascore: A-; Metacritic score: 48

$15,600,000 in 3,352 theaters; PSA: $4,654; Cumulative: $15,600,000

A modest but not entirely unexpected opening for Tom Cruise's latest action film (returning to his comfort zone after the failure of "Rock of Ages" over the summer). Based on Lee Child's ex-soldier vigilante character in a series of best-selling thrillers, this overcame so-so reviews and pre-Christmas spottiness to get to #2. While he's down from his heights, Cruise remains one of the few movie stars with marquee power.

The second directorial effort of Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for his script of "Usual Suspects" and seems to now be building on previous ties with Cruise (he wrote "Valkyrie" and is involved with the pre-productions of "Top Gun 2" and "Mission: Impossible 5"), this is one of two films from Skydance Productions to open this week, far more successful than "The Guilt Trip." Costing a thrifty $60 million, quite low for a Cruise film, between Christmas ahead and worldwide grosses, this should end up at least a minor money maker.

What comes next: Word of mouth will be crucial in the upcoming face-off with "Django Unchained" among action fans, but this will quickly fall from #2 as the holiday unfolds.

3. This Is 40 (Universal) NEW - Cinemascore: B-; Metacritic score: 58

$12,000,000 in 2,912 theaters; PSA: $4,130; Cumulative: $12,000,000

With decidedly mixed reviews, the lack of major star power and suggestion of less than great audience response (based on the low Cinemascore), this is actually a pretty solid gross for the weekend before Christmas. Hardly in the same league as director Judd Apatow's earlier efforts (even "Funny People," aided by summer playtime and Adam Sandler in the lead did $22 million in its opening before limping to just over $50), it suggests that the film's marketing (as a kind-a sequel to "Knocked Up") found a receptive audience.

This autobiographical comedy has less slapstick than Apatow's first two smashes (starting with "40 Year Old Virgin"), and married with children aspects don't lend themselves to younger audiences as those films did. It fills the "Fockers" Christmas slot, but without anything like those films' initial take. "Little Fockers" two years ago did $31 million its first weekend, which included the usually dead Christmas Eve. However, with an economical production cost of $35 million, this appears to have gotten out of the gate with some hope that it can do well enough ultimately to claim some success, if not remotely what Apatow has achieved previously.

What comes next: This seems vulnerable to the Christmas Day openings as well as possible mixed response. But getting open early has managed to fill the coffers enough to help in the long run.