Martin Freeman in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"
Martin Freeman in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"

The second Peter Jackson "Hobbit" film "Desolation of Smaug" is launching well below expectations--and last year's "Hobbit" opening. But despite that and harsh winter weather in much of the country, the weekend top ten total was up by $10 million over last year. Coming to the rescue: strong holds for blockbusters "Frozen" and "Catching Fire" as well as a $15-million opening for Tyler Perry's latest "Madea" entry. Signs are encouraging for robust year-end box office, although Hollywood will need a strong holiday indeed to bridge the $30-million gap between 2013 and 2012.  

Two films that should thrive as part of the Christmas mix opened limited. Sony's "American Hustle" from the very hot David O. Russell yielded a best-of-year limited opening of $690,000 in six New York/Los Angeles theaters (per screen average $115,000), playing to overflow business and falling short of a potentially higher gross because of lack of seats in this intense period for key theaters. This opens wide next Friday, with potential as a top-grosser over the holidays. 

Buena Vista opened "Saving Mr. Banks" in 15 theaters in a broader run (six cities) for a lesser but still decent $421,000 (PSA $28,067). With other cities not usually grossing at the level of those in New York/Los Angeles and this film's appeal being both older and more female (tougher to draw in pre-Christmas), these numbers should serve to at least help nurture initial word of mouth before it opens wide next Friday, with its best weeks likely to come during the prime holiday playtime. More on both of these limited openings in Arthouse Audit.

1. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Warner Bros.) NEW - Cinemascore: A-; Criticwire: B+; Metacritic: 66

$73,675,000 in 3,903 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $18,877; Cumulative: $73,675,000

This is was down about 12% from the opening of the first "Hobbit" last year, with weather in some of the country having an impact. It is still pre-Christmas, and the initially good audience response (A- Cinemascore grade) could set this three-hour extravaganza to come close to the first installment's $300 million domestic haul. The initial entry hit #1 on all three holiday weekends (even beating "Django Unchained" and "Les Miserables" with their strong Christmas openings). This might not repeat that achievement, but should easily make back Warners' expensive pre-marketing budget ($225 million). "Hobbit 1" wound up grossing $1 billion worldwide. Full worldwide weekend numbers are yet to come, but the initial overseas Friday grosses were about 5% ahead of last year.

This decline is different from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy (released by New Line, which has since been folded as a production label into parent company Warners; "The Hobbit" films are a co-production with MGM). The second "Rings" film grossed $102 million its first five days, up from $75 million for the first (both films opened on Wednesday). But it's unrealistic to expect lightning to strike twice. Midway through this trilogy there seems to be enough initial interest to justify the huge outlay (more than $700 million before marketing) for this lengthy trilogy. Jackson's unorthodox gamble seems to be paying off.

What comes next: Assuming that word of mouth is enthusiastic enough to keep interest up in the following weeks, initial signs are positive despite the drop from last year.

2. Frozen (Buena Vista) Week 4 - Last weekend #1

$22,184,000 (-30%) in 3,716 theaters (-26); PSA: $5,970; Cumulative: $164,388,000

"Tangled" (2010) was Disney's last holiday season animated juggernaut, ultimately grossing $200 million domestically after reaching $115 million at this point of its run. That suggests that "Frozen" (aided by 3D tickets) has a clear shot at hitting $300 million in domestic gross by the time it plays out next year. International so far is around $100 million, with nearly half the world yet to open and holidays likewise ahead to bolster it further. The drop this weekend was less than "Tangled" (-34% for the same weekend).

What comes next: With only one other kids' film still to open (Fox's "Walking With Dinosaurs" opens Friday), this should thrive over the upcoming weeks.