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THE HOBBIT Movie Box Office: Records to Be Truly Broken? Maybe

The Hobbit movie Christopher Lee SarumanThe Hobbit movie box office: Lord of the Rings prequel may — or may not — reach $100m on opening weekend in North America

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first Hobbit movie in a trilogy directed by Peter Jackson and starring Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, is expected to break a couple more box office records this weekend after shattering Avatar's midnight record for a December release. The Hobbit earned an estimated $13 million at 3,100 Thursday midnight showings, far surpassing the $3.5 million James Cameron / Sam Worthington's futuristic adventure drama earned at 2,000 sites three years ago. (Photo: Christopher Lee as Saruman in The Hobbit movie.)

The Hobbit should also break the opening-day December box office record and, inevitably, the opening-weekend December record as well. Those are the good news for the prequel to Peter Jackson's own The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The Hobbit movie reviews: Less than stellar

Now, the not so good news: Jackson's Hobbit movie, reportedly budgeted at $150m (not including marketing and distribution expenses), has a mediocre 42 percent approval rating and a 6/10 average among Rotten Tomatoes' top critics. For comparison's sake: the "worst-reviewed" Lord of the Rings movie, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, has a 92 percent approval rating and 7.9/10 average among Rotten Tomatoes' top critics (39 reviews). And let's not even mention the backlash against screening The Hobbit at 48 frames per second.

Box Office: The Hobbit vs. I Am Legend

Also less impressive than it sounds is The Hobbit's December "record-breaking" feat. If early estimates found at The Hollywood Reporter and other sites are accurate, Jackson's The Hobbit movie will open around $95 million at 4,045 sites — the widest December release ever. Barring a major Saturday / Sunday surge, The Hobbit (about $35-37 million on Friday, including the $13 million from midnight showtimes) should reach at most $105m. (Deadline.com initially had The Hobbit pegged at around $115m; late on Friday, it dramatically downsized the film's opening-weekend prospects.)

Back in December 2007, the Will Smith adventure sci-fier I Am Legend debuted with $77.2 million, or about $89 million adjusted for inflation, at 3,606 locations. So, even if The Hobbit earns "only" $90m, it'll still have beaten I Am Legend, right? Well, in dollar figures, the answer is yes. But one has to remember that I Am Legend didn't have the advantage of a couple of thousand ticket-cost-inflating 3D showings plus several hundred equally "inflating" IMAX screenings.

In other words, even if only 50 percent of all The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey tickets sold are for 3D and/or IMAX screenings, Jackson's Middle Earth flick will have to earn at least $102-103 million at the North American box office to beat I Am Legend in terms of ticket sales — which are the true measure of a movie's popularity. That's certainly not impossible, but so far it's not guaranteed. [See also: Box office: The Hobbit vs. the Lord of the Rings movies.]

The Hobbit stronger internationally

Much like the Lord of the Rings movies, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will surely perform much more strongly at the international box office, especially taking into account that two of today's top markets for Hollywood movies, China and Russia, were relatively small a mere ten years ago, not to mention marked increases in box office grosses in countries such as Mexico, Brazil, India, and South Korea. On Wednesday / Thursday, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit movie took in an estimated $27.3 million at 42 international markets, and it could easily reach $200m worldwide by Sunday evening.

And that's not all. Worldwide box office or no, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will likely make a huge chunk of its total gross not from movie theaters, but from movie toys and other merchandising. That's a key reason why studios are willing to spend $450m making a 9-hour or so movie trilogy based on a (approximately) 300-page book. That's about $1.5 million per page. Here's wondering what J.R.R. Tolkien would have thought about it.

Besides Martin Freeman, in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey cast are Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Elijah Wood, Orlando Bloom, Richard Armitage, Lee Pace, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Andy Serkis, Christopher Lee, Stephen Fry, Hugo Weaving, Mikael Persbrandt, Ian Holm, Barry Humphries, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Christopher Lee as Saruman in The Hobbit movie photo: Warner Bros.

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