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‘Hobbit,’ Holidays, Adult-Skewing Hits Have Hollywood on Record Box-Office Pace

Analysis: A broad lineup of strong movies, with several mature-skewing over-performers, has Hollywood heading for its biggest year ever at box office

The holiday box office is running 32 percent ahead of last year, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” just posted the richest December opener in history, and there is so much momentum that this roller-coaster year could wind up the biggest ever in terms of grosses.

It could be procrastination, gift card proliferation or just a batch of very appealing movies, but a lot of people whom Hollywood thought would be holiday shopping have been winding up at the multiplexes.

“I think it’s the quality and depth of this market,” Jeff Bock, senior analysts at Exhibitor Relations told TheWrap Monday. “It’s an extraordinary year and adults, and people who like smart films, are coming out.”

He pointed to Oscar favorites “Lincoln” and “Argo,” as well as Paramount's Denzel Washington thriller “Flight,” as examples of movies targeting mature audiences that have over-performed this season. DreamWorks and Disney's “Lincoln” and Warner Bros.' “Argo” are both over $100 million at the box office and “Flight” will get there this week.

Also read: 'Lincoln,' 'Argo' Get Jump on Awards Rivals at Box Office

“All of these movies have hit their core demographic and then gone way beyond,” Bock said. Adults – at least those over 25 – even made up nearly 60 percent of the opening weekend audience for “The Hobbit”

At roughly $10 billion through Sunday, overall grosses are now running more than 6 percent ahead of last year and, even more encouraging for Hollywood, admissions are ahead of last year’s by nearly the same number.

Also read: Why 'The Hobbit' Will Be Biggest Tolkien Tale Ever at the Box Office

“The Hobbit” has a lot to do with it. The previous best December debut was “I Am Legend” in 2009, and that year went on to become the biggest to date with $10.2 billion. Peter Jackson’s latest Middle-earth epic will be the springboard if 2012 is going to surpass that mark. If the year keeps up its current pace, it will end up at about $10.8 billion — and Hollywood really gets the holidays rolling this week.

Four films – led by Oscar front-runner “Zero Dark Thirty” – open Wednesday. From director Kathryn Bigelow (“Hurt Locker”), the thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is opening on just four screens. Paramount’s Barbra Streisand-Seth Rogan comedy “The Guilt Trip” will open in 2,300 theaters and Disney rolls out its 3D version of its 2001 animated hit “Monsters Inc.” in 2,400 locations.

Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” the 2012 Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, the best picture choice of the L.A. Film Critics and a favorite in Oscar’s Best Foreign Language race, begins a limited run, too.

On Friday, six movies hit the market. Paramount rolls out Tom Cruise in “Jack Reacher” in 3,200 theaters and the concert movie “Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away” in 800 locations. Universal is back with another R-rated comedy in Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40,” set for more than 2,900 locations.

Also read: Can 'The Hobbit,' 'Les Miserables' and 'Django Unchained' Thrive in Crowded Yule Box Office?

Also debuting in limited runs will be “The Impossible” from Summit Entertainment, IFC’s “On the Road,” starring Kristen Stewart, and “Not Fade Away” from Paramount Vantage. 

“Jack Reacher” is hoping for an opening of about $20 million, while comedies “This is 40” and “The Guilt Trip” are both expected to open in the $10 million to $12 million range.  That, combined with a healthy batch of holdovers led by “The Hobbit” – in a second week that will be telling for its long-term prospects — should keep things perking until next week.

That’s when Oscar hopefuls “Django Unchained” and “Les Miserables” — both projected to be box office heavyweights — along with Fox's Billy Crystal-Bette Midler comedy “Parental Guidance,” roll out on Christmas Day. Quentin Tarantino’s R-rated slavery saga is expected to open to at about $28 million for the Weinstein Company and Tom Hooper’s star-studded take on the classic musical should debut at about $22 million for Universal.

That all adds up to a lot of holiday cheer at the box office for Hollywood.