As Peter Jackson's “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” hits U.S. movie theaters at 12:01 a.m. Friday, several factors are converging that will make it a bigger moneymaker at the worldwide box office than any of the "Lord of the Rings" movies.
Unprecedented anticipation, 3D premium pricing and a greatly expanded international market give Jackson’s latest Middle-earth epic an edge over the "Rings" trilogy, which collectively took in nearly $3 billion globally.
With the prequel on a whopping 4,045 screens in the U.S.. Warner Bros. says it’s looking for a $70 million opening weekend -- comparable to the 2003 debut of the franchise finale “Return of the King.”
Most analysts, though, see it coming in closer to $100 million in its debut weekend -- and some estimates have gone as high as $140 million.
Studios often look to lower expectations going into an opening weekend, but the disparity between the studio and analysts' estimates on "The Hobbit" is unusually large. Indeed, while Warner's executives didn't want to be quoted hours before the film's U.S. debut, an executive at a rival studio wasn't buying the high-end estimates.
"Anyone who thinks this is going to do $120 million is forgetting that this is the middle of December," the executive told TheWrap, suggesting $85 million was more realistic. "It has a fan base, but it's not a 'Twilight' or 'Hunger Games' gotta-see-it-now crowd. Warner Bros. is in this for the long haul."
What seems pretty sure is that the PG-13 rated “Hobbit” will post the biggest December opening ever, topping 2007’s “I Am Legend” at $77.2 million. Another comparable debut would be the second-best December opener, Jim Cameron’s 2009 epic “Avatar.” That one was in 3D, as is “The Hobbit,” and took in $77 million.
So why the great expectations, especially for a nearly three-hour movie whose reviews have been something less than ecstatic? There are three big reasons “The Hobbit” will top the global grosses of the previous three Middle-earth megahits, including the $1.1 billion worldwide total rung up by “Return of the King”:
>> Anticipation: It has been nine years since “Return of the King,” so the huge and rabid fan base is beyond ready, with Jackson stoking anticipation with multiple Facebook messages and interviews since beginning production last year.
It doesn’t hurt that "Return of the King” was the most popular of all and swept the Academy Awards, winning all 11 categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture.
>> 3D: Much of the pre-release buzz has centered on Jackson’s use of the ground-breaking 48 frames-per-second film speed process to create the film, but when it comes to the box office, 3D will matter more. This will be the first of the Middle-earth epics to utilize the format and benefit from the extra 15 percent in premium pricing that 3D brings.
Warner Bros. has it in 3,160 3D locations, or roughly 78 percent of the total run. The 48 frames technology -- 24 frames-per-second has been the standard for decades -- will be available in 461 theaters, about 11 percent of the total. There won’t be a price uptick for the faster frame rate, because it is only available on 3D and Imax screens, and the uptick is already in place.
>> Overseas: The three previous Tolkien tales have been bigger internationally than in the U.S., with domestic grosses accounting for just 35 percent of the worldwide total on average.
Indeed, the foreign haul on franchise films often increases with successive releases and that should be the case with “The Hobbit,” which Warner Bros. is opening on 17,000 screens in 55 foreign markets on Friday.
But the biggest difference in terms of the grosses will be the exponential growth of the overall foreign box office and the emergence of several major markets.
China, Russia and Brazil, for example, had a fraction of the screens that they do now when the “Return of the King” came out, and that was the franchise’s biggest foreign moneymaker, bringing in $742 million worldwide. ("The Two Towers" made $583 million of its $923 million worldwide total overseas, and "The Fellowship of the Rings" did $556 million overseas and $871 worldwide.)
“Return of the King” took in a total of $12 million in China. “The Hobbit” could do that in its first weekend, and should far outstrip “Return of the King” internationally.
Warner Bros. will get an early handle on the film’s foreign fortunes. "The Hobbit" got off to a fast start abroad with $11.2 million from openings in 16 markets on Wednesday, including a record-breaking $643,000 debut in New Zealand, Jackson's home country where much of the film was shot.
Of course, you can't dismiss the fact that critics’ haven't been overly impressed with the movie, and Jackson's use of high-speed film has been roundly panned. But those factors won’t keep it from being one of the year’s biggest global releases, according to Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations.
“It’s been nearly 10 years since the ‘Lord of the Rings,’ and everything is set up for this to be an event opening,” Bock told TheWrap. “There is a perfect storm of circumstances for it to succeed. Warner Bros. has nothing to worry about.”
That "perfect storm," in fact, comes despite a not untroubled road to release.
Before “The Hobbit” was ready for the screen, Warner Bros.’ New Line Cinema had to overcome the financial uncertainty caused by the bankruptcy of producing partner Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, on-set labor strife in Jackson’s native New Zealand and, to a lesser degree, complaints of animal neglect during the shoot from PETA.
The $225 million production budget and Jackson’s decisions to use the high-speed film and turn the single novel into three films, rather than the two he planned at the outset of filming, have kept it in the headlines – and in the crosshairs of some critics who have called the first installment bloated.
"This film is so stuffed with extraneous faff and flummery," opined Robbie Collin of the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph, "that it often barely feels like Tolkien at all -- more a dire, fan-written internet tribute.”
But Bock doesn't think any of this will matter at the box office.
“The reviews have been good enough,” he said. They're 61 percent positve at Movie Review Intelligence, 67 percent at Rotten Tomatoes. “And to an extent, some of the tougher ones are the result of the success of ‘Return of the King,’ which set the creative bar really high. ‘The Hobbit’ is still great genre filmmaking on an epic scale.”
What's more, for the past two weeks, the studios have avoided releasing any major movies. Oscar contenders including “Lincoln” and “Life of Pi,” along with franchise holdovers “Twilight: Breaking Dawn 2” and the resilient “Skyfall,” are still in the market, but moviegoers have seen nothing new of note since Thanksgiving. “Rise of the Guardians" and "Pi" will be the only competition for families.
And regardless of how big the opening turns out to be, expect “The Hobbit” to stay No. 1 until at least Christmas Day. Since there are two more installments of “The Hobbit" coming in the next two years, moviegoers had better get used to furry feet atop the box office for weeks at a time.