'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) 1937 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 a disappointing figure?
Well, as late as Friday afternoon, matinee attendance numbers indicated that the Warner Bros.-released, $150 million-budget (not including marketing and distribution expenses) 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 The Hobbit ended up grossing about $30 million less.
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 the opening weekend take of Will Smith's I Am Legend and of both 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.
'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' finally passes $200 million domestic cume
January 2013 update: Peter Jackson's $150 million-budget The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – finally – passed the $200 million milestone at the North American box office on Dec. 28. Its cume stands at $200.32 million on Day 15.
For comparison's sake: Not adjusted for inflation and without the advantage of box-office-inflating 3D surcharges, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King reached $200 million on Day 11; The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers on Day 12; and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring on Day 19.
See also: Further budget information re: The Hobbit movie trilogy.
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 the U.S. and Canada.
The latest Middle Earth franchise will in all likelihood follow the same path, especially considering 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 or so 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.
But why did 'The Hobbit' open lower than expected at the domestic box office?
Question: why did The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey open 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 the U.S. and Canada.
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 new(ish) movie franchise. First installments, of course, are usually less popular than branded 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:
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).
Veteran Christopher Lee (The Face of Fu Manchu, She).
J.R.R. Tolkien's novel was adapted by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro – who had previously been touted as the director of The Hobbit before abandoning the project in 2010.
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.
'Les Misérables' & 'Django Unchained' overperform on Christmas Day
Dec. 26 update (followed by January 2013 update with box office actuals): In late December 2012 box office news, the film version of the international stage hit Les Misérables opened strongly on Christmas Day in the domestic market – $18.11 million at 2,808 locations – far surpassing distributor Universal's (official) expectations of around $10 million.
True, studios tend to underestimate the opening-weekend (or opening-day) grosses of their films – for obvious reasons – but this is a bit much. It just remains to be seen whether such an impressive performance for a nearly three-hour musical will hold in the coming days, as pre-sales accounted for a major percentage of the tickets sold on Dec. 25.
As a domestic box office plus, Quentin Tarantino's violent Django Unchained, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, and Jamie Foxx, opened with better than expected figures. The R-rated Western/slavery tale scored $15.01 million at 3,010 venues – a Christmas Day record for an R-rated release.
Controversies regarding Django Unchained's violence and expletive-/slur-filled language have spurred interest in Tarantino's film – Spike Lee sure has done his bit – much like the torture controversy helped to propel Kathryn Bigelow's thriller Zero Dark Thirty to unexpected box office heights (in limited release) last week.
Good news for The Weinstein Company
The success of Django Unchained is good news for The Weinstein Company, which has suffered a series of flops/disappointments in recent weeks (box office cumes as of Dec. 23):
- Paul Thomas Anderson's well-received The Master, with $15.93 million in spite of a cast that includes Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.
- The Andrew Dominik-Brad Pitt bomb Killing Them Softly, with $14.73 million. Dominik's crime drama had the worst domestic debut ever of any Brad Pitt movie in wide release.
- To a lesser extent, David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, with $19.86 million. (Update: Thanks to plenty of awards season/Oscar buzz & wins, Silver Linings Playbook, toplining Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Jacki Weaver, ultimately grossed a solid $132.09 million in the U.S. and Canada.)
'Les Misérables' & 'Django Unchained' cast
Directed by Academy Award winner Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, 2010), Les Misérables features:
Best Actress Oscar nominee Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married, 2008).
Best Actor Oscar winner Russell Crowe (Gladiator, 2000).
Two-time Oscar nominee Helena Bonham Carter (as Best Actress for The Wings of the Dove, 1997; as Best Supporting Actress for The King's Speech, 2010).
Based on Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Jean-Marc Natel's 1980 stage musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic 1862 novel, the Les Misérables screenplay is credited to Boublil, Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer (who provided the English-language libretto/lyrics for the stage musical), and two-time Oscar nominee William Nicholson (Shadowlands, 1993; Gladiator).
See also: Early Les Misérables reviews.
Besides Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, and Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained also features:
Kerry Washington. Dennis Christopher. Don Johnson. Amber Tamblyn.
James Remar. Walton Goggins. David Steen. James Russo. Jonah Hill.
Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Russ Tamblyn (Peyton Place, 1957).
Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction, 1994).
Veteran Franco Nero (Camelot, A Quiet Place in the Country).
Christopher Lee's other Saruman-like character
 Besides Peter Jackson's two Middle Earth trilogies, Christopher Lee has also left his mark on another iconic – and seemingly endless – movie franchise: he was seen as Count Dooku – like Saruman, an embodiment of power lust depravity – in George Lucas' 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 Hound of the Baskervilles (1959).
- The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959).
- The Hands of Orlac (1960).
- The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960).
- She (1965).
- Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966).
- The Wicker Man (1973).
- The Three Musketeers (1973).
- The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).
- Bear Island (1979).
- House of the Long Shadows (1983).
- L'avaro (1990).
- Sleepy Hollow (1999).
- The Golden Compass (2007).
Images of Andy Serkis as the Gollum and Christopher Lee as the Wizard Saruman in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Warner Bros.
Anne Hathaway Les Misérables image: Working Title / Universal Pictures.
Leonardo DiCaprio Django Unchained image: The Weinstein Company / Columbia Pictures.
“The Hobbit: Domestic Blockbuster or Box Office Disappointment + Surprising Victor Hugo Musical Hit” last updated in July 2018.