‘Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug’ Aims for $80M Box Office Debut, But It Won't Be Easy

'Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug' Aims for $80M Box Office Debut, But It Won't Be Easy

No cause for alarm if “Smaug” opens a little shy of “Journey” — there's just more competition at home this year

Don't be fooled if “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” falls a bit shy of its predecessor, “An Unexpected Journey,” in its opening box-office weekend both domestically and abroad — this dragon will hunt.

“The Desolation of Smaug” rolls out Friday in 3,903 U.S. theaters, and is expected to breathe between $75 million and $80 million in box-office fire, just short of Peter Jackson's first trilogy installment, which opened the same weekend last year to $85 million. The sequel is also unlikely to match “Journey's” $138 million opening-weekend haul overseas.

But there's no reason to think “Smaug” can't match “Journey's” more than $1 billion worldwide in the end — it's just getting off to a slightly slower start.

For one thing, “Smaug” is opening in 50 foreign markets this weekend, a handful fewer than “Journey” did last year. The studio has delayed its Latin America release until closer to the Christmas holidays, it won't hit Japan until February, and a China date is pending until 2014. Ultimately, the film's overseas grosses are widely expected to top the massive $700 million total of the first.

Also read: ‘Hobbit’ Sequel Will Outpace the First at Overseas Box Office – And That's Saying Plenty

Hitting the $300 million domestic mark that “Journey” managed could be tougher for “Smaug,” which like the first film is a production of Warner Bros., New Line and MGM.

“There's a lot more competition domestically than we were facing last year,” Warner Bros. head of domestic distribution Dan Fellman told TheWrap, and he's right about that.

The comedy “Tyler Perry‘s A Madea Christmas” is opening in roughly 2,100 theaters Friday and is expected to bring in about $20 million from mainly African-American audiences for distributor Lionsgate.

“Frozen” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” are in their third and fourth weeks, but showed plenty of life last week and are certain to do better than the $7 million that “Rise of the Guardians” and “Lincoln” managed against the first Hobbit film's opening. “Unexpected Journey” was in more than 4,000 theaters, too.

“Desolation of Smaug” was the leading advance seller as of Wednesday at online ticket broker Fandango, with a strong but not overwhelming two-thirds of the business.

Also read: Weinsteins Sue Warners, New Line Over ‘Hobbit’ Sequel Profits

But make no mistake, “The Desolation of Smaug” has plenty going for it.

Counting the “Lord of the Rings” movies and the first Hobbit film, the franchise has brought in nearly $5 billion at the worldwide box office since the first film debuted in 2001.

The success of the series has been built on the huge global popularity of J.R.R. Tolkein's novels and more than 75 years later – “The Hobbit” was published in 1937 – fan fervor shows no signs of fading. To accommodate the expected crush of “fan boys,” roughly 3,000 theaters will be offering midnight shows – after 8 p.m. screenings of “Unexpected Journey.”

The tracking has been steady at $75 million for weeks, and the buzz on the PG-13-rated “Smaug” is more positive than the first film.

Also read: ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ Review: Peter Jackson's Second Verse Is Better Than the First

The critics are far more impressed with this one, with many citing the film's visual spectacle. “Unexpected Journey” was at 65 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes, while this one is at 76.

And the hubbub that greeted the first film over the high-frame-rate utilized by Jackson is virtually non-existent, even though Warner Bros has nearly doubled the number of theaters showing it in the format domestically, from 450 locations to roughly 750. The box-office tally for “Smaug” will benefit from premium pricing boosts at those theaters, as well as a full complement of 3D and Imax locations.

Social media signs have “Smaug” pacing significantly ahead of “Unexpected Journey” on both Twitter and Facebook, according to BoxOffice.com. On Twitter, the volume is five percent higher and the positive-to-negative ratio is 9.4-1, as opposed to the original's 5-1.

Also read: Stephen Colbert Explains ‘Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug’ Role to Letterman (Video)

The storyline continues the events of ”An Unexpected Journey,” in which the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) travels with the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and 13 dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to combat the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). 

Jackson produces and wrote the screenplay with his longtime collaborators and ”Lord of the Rings” co-writers Fran walsh and Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, originally chosen to direct the “Hobbit” films.

Evangeline Lilly co-stars, along with Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt and Orlando Bloom.

Warner Bros., New Line and MGM are hoping audiences will make “The Hobbit’ a holiday tradition. The third film, “There and Back Again,” is scheduled to be released in this same slot next year.