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Weekend Box Office Top Ten: 'The Hobbit' Breaks Records, But What Does It Mean?

Box Office
by Tom Brueggemann
December 16, 2012 1:08 PM
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'The Hobbit'

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" delivered about 70% of the top ten revenue during the pre-Christmas doldrums. Grosses almost doubled from last weekend and climbed about 13% from last year, making this a very successful weekend indeed.

Yes, "The Hobbit" set a record for December weekend openings-- in raw dollar count--but the numbers suggest that it might not be quite as strong as seems at first glance. Down the line, a whole series of Thanskgiving and earlier releases show few signs of giving up their screens as a whole slew of major new films prepare to battle to grab their spots over the next two weeks.

1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Warner Bros.) - Cinemascore: A; Metacritic score: 58

$84,775,000 in 4,045 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $20,958; Cumulative: $84,775,000

The initial installment of "The Hobbit" trilogy has achieved the biggest December weekend gross ever, an impressive achievement. But analyzing the grosses beyond the raw numbers does reveal something a bit different from the headlines. Compare these numbers to the final part of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy nine years ago, as well as other big December openings.

Back then "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" opened in about 300 fewer theaters, with base ticket prices around 25% lower than now, without the surcharges for 3-D and other special presentations, with a Wednesday opening. That means that $51 million had already been taken in before the weekend. It then grossed $72 million for its three day weekend, bringing in around 10 million customers on top of the 7 million who had already seen it.

Three years ago, "Avatar" opened in a slightly more difficult weekend -- the last before Xmas, traditionally an even tougher time for movies -- and grossed $77 million in about 600 fewer theaters, with similar surcharges but slightly lower ticket prices. However, "Avatar" didn't have the benefit of being the perceived continuation of a huge franchise, from which "The Hobbit" gains. Its Saturday-Sunday grosses, similar to "LotR:RotK," also in raw numbers are better than the two day projection for "The Hobbit."

And in 2007, "I Am Legend," a non-franchise, non-3-D release, opened to $77 million as well, with about 12 million tickets sold. It is more difficult to estimate exactly how many tickets were sold for "The Hobbit." But even with a average ticket prices estimated at $10, likely below the actual cost with surcharges, "The Hobbit" would have far fewer attendees, somewhere around 8 million, on par with "Avatar," but below both "I Am Legend" and "LofR:RotK."

The point? Yes, "The Hobbit" has opened strongly, although industry estimates suggested expectations over $100 million. Yes, it has in undifferentiated numbers outgrossed any previous December opening. But it is far too early to suggest it will sustain itself to the degree the earlier "Rings" films did, much less "Avatar"'s incredible numbers.

56 international territories also opened (most markets), with the $223 million total as normal (when a film is released simultaneously) 63% share from these countries.

What comes next: Christmas week sustained and expanded the success of both the "Lord of the Rings" series and "Avatar." The unanswered question now is whether "The Hobbit" will have the same level of word of mouth, repeat business and additional interest that turned those films into some of the biggest hits of all time. That, more that its strong opening, is how the ultimate success of this film will be determined.

2. Rise of the Guardians (Paramount) - Week 4; Last weekend: #2

$7,420,000 (-29%) in 3,387 theaters (-252); PSA: $2,191; Cumulative: $71,362,000

This expensive Dreamworks animated film has been the surprise success post-Thanksgiving. It had grossed below hopes when it opened, but now has risen to second place for two weeks in a row. And this is with all-importnat Christmas school vacation still approaching.  Now this kids-oriented film is certain to stay in theaters in the weeks ahead and grow its gross substantially.

What comes next: This still won't approach the $200 million-plus gross of earlier animated features this year, and even with worldwide grosses eventually adding much more, this doesn't look like it will ever achieve major success compared to its budget. But for Dreamworks Animation (moving forward, distributed by Fox) the better than normal hold has to come as a relief.

3. Lincoln (Buena Vista) - Week 6; Last weekend: #4

$7,244,000 (-19%) in 2,285 theaters (+ 271); PSA: $3,170; Cumulative: $107,898,000

It's tough to add new superlatives to the amazing ongoing performance of this film. Jumping one position in its sixth week, leaping ahead of two films that it was behind last weekend (aided by adding some additional theaters), there is no stopping its success.

What comes next: With Christmas ahead, holding in nearly all these theaters, and then an expected Oscar-leading nomination total still ahead, this could still come close to doubling its gross so far and be in the top ten for two more months. Steven Spielberg has accomplished a lot in his career, but this achievement has to be near the top of the list.

4. Skyfall (Sony) - Week 6; Last weekend: #1

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