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THE HOBBIT Box Office: Trailing Two THE LORD OF THE RINGS Movies

The Hobbit movie GollumThe Hobbit box office: Behind The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and I Am Legend in ticket sales

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first movie in Peter Jackson's trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's book The Hobbit, opened with a disappointing $84.61 million at the North American box office this weekend, Dec. 14-16, according to box office actuals found at Box Office Mojo. But how can one say that nearly $85 million over the course of one weekend is disappointing? Well, as late as Friday afternoon, matinee attendance indicated that the prequel to Jackson's immensely successful The Lord of the Rings movies would collect up to $115 million in the U.S. and Canada. Yet, the $150m-budgeted (not including marketing and distribution expenses) The Hobbit ended up grossing about $30m less. (Image: Gollum in The Hobbit movie; voice by Andy Serkis.) [Note: This paragraph has been updated to reflect The Hobbit's weekend box office actuals.]

Oh, but The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey broke all sorts of domestic December box office records. Well, yes, if you live on a planet where inflation is unheard of. Although it's true that The Hobbit easily holds the December midnight record – $13 million vs. James Cameron / Sam Worthington's Avatar's $3.5 million – despite showings at a record-breaking (for December) 4,045 locations, Peter Jackson's latest failed to surpass either Will Smith's I Am Legend or The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King once inflation is factored in.

I Am Legend grossed $77.2 million in December 2007, or approximately $89 million today. The Two Towers raked in $62 million, or an inflation-adjusted $88m. And The Return of the King scored $72.62 million, or about $95 million today. I should add that with $37.5 million earned on opening day (including the midnight screenings), The Hobbit also trailed The Return of the King's inflation-adjusted $45.5 million – and let's not forget that the final The Lord of the Rings movie opened on a Wednesday. Or that The Hobbit has the revenue-boosting advantage of 3D / IMAX surcharges – 49 percent of ticket sales were for 3D screenings. [See also: "The Hobbit vs. the Lord of the Rings Movies."]

The silver lining: More than 60 percent of the Lord of the Rings movies' worldwide gross originated outside North America. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will in all likelihood follow the same path. In fact, in the last five days The Hobbit grossed an estimated $138.2 million in 56 territories, or about 62 percent of the film's current $222.97 million worldwide total. [See also: "Breaking Dawn Part 2 Trailing Only The Avengers in Brazil."]

Why did The Hobbit open lower than expected in the U.S. and Canada?

Now, why did The Hobbit open considerably more modestly than expected on the North American front? Well, possibilities – and those are merely possibilities – range from the still sluggish U.S. economy to generally unenthusiastic reviews, which may have kept non-Middle Earth aficionados from checking out the film. The three-hour running time may have been a deterrent to others, while the highly negative buzz surrounding Jackson's 48 frames-per-second innovation may have turned others off. (Remember that no matter how rotten, 3D movies almost invariably fare much better internationally than in North America.)

And finally, the gap between The Return of the King and The Hobbit is nearly a decade, so perhaps The Hobbit should be seen less as a prequel to the previously released sequels (get it?), and more like the first installment of a brand new movie franchise.

Anyhow, here's another silver lining: North American moviegoers reportedly gave The Hobbit an "A" CinemaScore, which may help with word of mouth. (Now, animal lovers may feel otherwise, considering highly disturbing claims that a number of animals died during the making of the three Hobbit movies.)

The Hobbit movie cast

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey features Martin Freeman, Orlando Bloom, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis, Evangeline Lilly, Cate Blanchett, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Christopher Lee, Lee Pace, Hugo Weaving, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, Stephen Hunter, James Nesbitt, Aidan Turner, Bret McKenzie, Jed Brophy, Mikael Persbrandt, Barry Humphries, Elijah Wood, and Ian Holm.

Gollum in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit movie photo: Warner Bros.

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