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'The Hobbit': Domestic Blockbuster or Box Office Disappointment Trailing Two 'The Lord of the Rings' Movies?

The Hobbit Gollum (Andy Serkis): An Unexpected Journey both blockbuster and disappointment?The Hobbit with the Gollum a.k.a. Andy Serkis. Starring Martin Freeman as the young Bilbo Baggins, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – the first installment in the cinematic trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's (not all that long) 1937 novel The Hobbit – is both a domestic blockbuster and a domestic box office disappointment in relation to its exorbitant cost: $150 million, not including marketing and distribution expenses. In large part thanks to box office-boosting inflationary pressures and pricier 3D/IMAX movie tickets, The Hobbit has officially broken a handful of December records. But once inflation is taken into account, this prequel to the Lord of the Rings movies is trailing the Will Smith thriller I Am Legend and two of the LOTR entries, The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey': Domestic blockbuster or disappointment? Or both?

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first movie in Peter Jackson's trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's (relatively short) fantasy novel The Hobbit, opened with a disappointing $84.61 million at the North American box office this past weekend, Dec. 14–16.

But how can one say that nearly $85 million over the course of one December 2012 weekend is disappointing?

Well, as late as Friday afternoon, matinee attendance numbers indicated that the Warner Bros.-released $150 million-budgeted prequel (not including marketing and distribution expenses) 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 The Hobbit ended up grossing about $30 million less.

Record-breaking hobbit?

Oh, but The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey did at least break all sorts of domestic December box office records, right? 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 (at 3,100 midnight venues) vs. the $3.5 million earned by the James Cameron-Sam Worthington collaboration Avatar at 2,000 sites three years ago – once inflation is factored in, 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. That, despite showings at a record-breaking (for December) 4,045 locations.

As found at boxofficemojo.com:

  • I Am Legend grossed $77.2 million in December 2007 (approximately $89 million today) at 3,606 locations.
  • The Two Towers raked in $62 million in 2002 (approx. $88 million today) from 3,622 sites.
  • The Return of the King scored $72.62 million in 2003 (approx. $95 million today) from 3,703 sites.

It should be noted that with $37.5 million earned on opening day (including the record-breaking midnight screenings), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey also trailed The Return of the King: $34.5 million in 2003, or an inflation-adjusted $45.5 million.

And let's not forget that the final The Lord of the Rings movie opened on a Wednesday.

'The Lord of the Rings' movies

For the record, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring took in $47.21 million (approx. $66 million today) on its first weekend out at 3,359 locations in December 2001.

Ah, minor detail: none of the Lord of the Rings movies was screened in ticket-price-inflating 3D.

Another minor detail: back in the early 2000s, ticket-price-inflating IMAX screenings were quite rare.

So keep in mind that 49 percent of The Hobbit's domestic weekend gross came from 3D screenings.

Shot concurrently in New Zealand, the Lord of the Rings movies were budgeted at a reported $280 million or whereabouts; that's approximately $94 million per movie. Adjusted for inflation (based on U.S. Department of Labor statistics), each The Lord of the Rings movie cost circa $125 million in 2012 dollars vs. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey's $150 million price tag (a reported $450 million for the trilogy).

Leaving inflation aside, The Fellowship of the Ring cumed at $315 million in North America. The Two Towers at $342.55 million. The Return of the King at $377.84 million.

Update: See further budget information re: The Hobbit movie trilogy.

The Hobbit Christopher Lee as Wizard Saruman: Seen in An Unexpected Journey but not in Tolkien bookThe Hobbit with Christopher Lee as the Wizard Saruman a.k.a. Saruman the White. A veteran with about 200 features to his credit over the course of more than six decades, Dracula: Prince of Darkness and The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism star Christopher Lee first made his mark as the evil Wizard Saruman in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Since then, Lee has become associated less with Transylvania than with Middle Earth. He's now back as Saruman in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – even though the character is nowhere to be found in Tolkien's novel. Lee has also left his mark on another iconic movie franchise, for he was seen as Count Dooku – like Saruman, an embodiment of power lust depravity – in both Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005). Non-franchise Christopher Lee movies include Storm Over the Nile (1955), The Hands of Orlac (1960), The Wicker Man (1973), Bear Island (1979), House of the Long Shadows (1983), and Sleepy Hollow (1999).

International market to the rescue

Here's one major box office silver lining for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: more than 60 percent of the Lord of the Rings movies' worldwide gross originated outside North America.

The latest Middle Earth franchise will in all likelihood follow the same path, especially when taking into account that two of Hollywood's current top markets, China and Russia, were relatively small a mere ten years ago. Moreover, box office grosses have markedly increased in countries such as Mexico, Brazil, India, and South Korea.

In fact, in the last five days The Hobbit pulled in an estimated $138.2 million in 56 territories, or about 62 percent of the film's current $222.97 million worldwide total.

$1.5 million per 'The Hobbit' page

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, videogames, and other merchandising.

That's a key reason why studios are willing to shell out half a billion dollars (or more) making a nine-hour or so movie trilogy based on a 95,000-word book. That's about $4,750 per word.

See also: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 trailing only The Avengers in Brazil.

Why did 'The Hobbit' open lower than expected at domestic box office?

But why did The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey open considerably more modestly than expected on the North American front?

Well, possibilities – and those are mere possibilities – range from the still sluggish U.S. economy to generally unenthusiastic reviews, which may have discouraged non-Middle Earth aficionados from checking out the film.

The Hobbit, in fact, 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 Fellowship of the Ring, has a 92 percent approval rating and 7.9/10 average among Rotten Tomatoes' top critics.

In addition, The Hobbit's 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 off others yet.

But how come internationally … Well, just bear in mind that no matter how rotten, 3D movies almost invariably fare much better outside of than in North America.

Prequel or first installment in new franchise?

And finally, there's nearly a decade-long gap between The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. So perhaps the latter 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. First installments, of course, are usually less popular than brand-recognizable sequels.

Anyhow, here's another silver lining: North American moviegoers have given The Hobbit an “A” CinemaScore, which may help with word of mouth.

Animal lovers, however, may feel otherwise. As per several highly disturbing claims, a number of animals died during the making of the three Hobbit movies.

'The Hobbit' movie cast

Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey features the following:

Martin Freeman. Orlando Bloom. Richard Armitage. Andy Serkis. Evangeline Lilly. Luke Evans.

Stephen Fry. Lee Pace. Hugo Weaving. Benedict Cumberbatch. Ken Stott. Stephen Hunter.

James Nesbitt. Aidan Turner. Bret McKenzie. Jed Brophy. Mikael Persbrandt. Barry Humphries. Elijah Wood. Ian Holm.

Two-time Academy Award nominee Ian McKellen (as Best Actor for his portrayal of James Whale in Gods and Monsters, 1998; as Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Gandalf The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001).

Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Cate Blanchett (as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, 2004).

Veteran Christopher Lee (The Face of Fu Manchu, She).

A New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer co-production, The Hobbit was released by New Line's sister company, Warner Bros., itself part of the Time Warner conglomerate.

See also: Killing Them Softly has Brad Pitt's worst domestic wide-release weekend debut ever.

 

Images of Andy Serkis as the Gollum and Christopher Lee as the Wizard Saruman in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Warner Bros.

Gollum in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit movie photo: New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Warner Bros.

'The Hobbit': Domestic Blockbuster or Box Office Disappointment Trailing Two 'The Lord of the Rings' Movies? © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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1 Comment to 'The Hobbit': Domestic Blockbuster or Box Office Disappointment Trailing Two 'The Lord of the Rings' Movies?

  1. Cruz

    The critics hated it it but the fans loved it, therefore the critics must make up bizarre reasons why it is not really doing well when it is in fact doing well. What next? “Well with the end of the world coming, people are just going out to see anything so those numbers do not really count.”