‘The Hobbit 2’ Plunders $8.8 Million at the Midnight Box Office

J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation expected to rule the box office

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” opened to $8.8 million during midnight showings Friday, according to studio estimates.

That’s a strong showing and the second biggest December midnight debut in history, though it falls short of the $13 million that the previous film in the series racked up in midnight runs last year.

The fantasy adventure was unfurled in the wee hours of the night in roughly 3,000 theaters. Roughly $1.25 million of its initial haul came from IMAX locations.

The hotly anticipated sequel rolls out Friday in 3,903 U.S. theaters, where Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth is expected to generate $75 million to $80 million at the domestic box office. If those projections hold, that will be just shy of the $85 million that the first installment in the trilogy brought in last year.

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Fanboys turned out in force, though not enough to match some of the year’s larger late-night debuts, such as “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’s” $25 million bow and “Iron Man 3″s $15.6 million unveiling. It should be noted, however, that those films were released earlier in the evening, while “The Desolation of Smaug” didn’t get its late night screenings rolling until midnight — moreover, with a running time of nearly 3 hours, it may have been less user friendly for working Joes and Janes.

Reviews for the new edition have been stronger, with critics lavishing praise on the addition of a dragon foil, silkily voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. “The Desolation of Smaug” currently enjoys a 74 percent “fresh” rating on critics aggregator Rotten Tomatoes compared to the 65 percent “fresh” rating its predecessor, “An Unexpected Journey,” received.

The sequel faces an uphill climb if it wants to eclipse the first “Hobbit” film’s $138 million foreign opening, because it is premiering in fewer overseas markets during its first week of release.

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“The Desolation of Smaug” will debut in 50 foreign markets this weekend, but it won’t hit major markets like Japan and China until 2014. Analysts still expect that enthusiasm for J.R.R. Tolkien’s tale of dwarves, dragons and wizards will help the film match the $1 billion generated by “An Unexpected Journey.”

Domestically, it faces stiff competition from “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” all of which open between this Friday and Christmas.

The Warner Bros./NewLine release brings back “Lord of the Rings” cast members such as Ian McKellen and Orlando Bloom, as well as “The Hobbit”s troop of actors such as Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage.