New Line and MGM's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey kicked off the holiday season in high style, opening to $84.8 million, the top three-day opening of all time for the month of December.
The first in Peter Jackson's planned trilogy, Hobbit opened to $138.2 million overseas for a worldwide total of $223 million. The movie came in ahead The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003 ($125.9 million).
In North America, Will Smith's I Am Legend previously held the record for best December opening with $77.2 million on the same weekend in 2007.
Hobbit received an A CinemaScore from moviegoers, portending good word-of-mouth. Warner Bros., which owns New Line, is distributing the 3D fantasy adventure, which could earn as much as four times its opening weekend gross through New Year's Day (Christmas films can have especially strong multiples).
Hobbit -- based on J. R. R. Tolkien's 1937 novel and set 60 years before the events chronicled in The Lord of the Rings -- played older, with 58 percent of the audience over 25. Males made up 57 percent of those buying tickets, while younger moviegoers gave the epic an A+ CinemaScore.
"It is great to see Peter's fans return, along with a new generation of that is embracing Middle-earth," Warners president of domestic distribution Dan Fellman said. "We expect a long and exciting run."
Return of the King, opening on Dec. 17, 2003, a Wednesday, posted a five-day domestic debut of $124.1 million, including a weekend opening of roughly $72 million.
Imax theaters, the favorite locale of fanboys, made up the top 10 locations for Hobbit, with the 326 giant-screen sites generating $10.1 million in ticket for a location average of $31,000. Imax theaters playing the film in the 48 frames-per-second format drew particularly strong numbers, averaging $44,000 per location.
Imax also saw big business overseas, where 126 locations turned in $5 million for a per screen average of $40,000 and setting a December record.
Overall, only 49 percent of the opening-weekend domestic gross came from 3D screens, including from all theaters that played the film in the higher frame rate.
Starring Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins and returning Ian McKellen in the role of the wizard Gandalf form Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, Hobbit is the first in a planned trilogy.
Elsewhere, awards contenders Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook both saw a boost from their Golden Globe nominations.
In its sixth weekend, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln dropped less than 19 percent to come in No. 3 with weekend earnings of $7.2 million and putting its domestic total at $107.9 million. DreamWorks produced the film, while Disney has domestic distribution duties.
From David O. Russell, Silver Linings dropped only 4 percent to come in at No. 10 with $2.1 million from 371 theaters. The Weinstein Co. dramedy saw the lowest decline of any film in the top 10 and will add more theaters on Christmas Day.
French film Rust and Bone, starring Marion Cotillard, also saw a bump from its Globe noms. From Sony Pictures Classics, the film grossed $56,040 as it upped its theater count to six for a location average of $9,340.
Fox Searchlight's Hitchcock expanded its theater count to 561 but continued to struggle, despite a Globe acting nom for Helen Mirren. The film grossed $1.1 million for a location average of $1,935.
The Metropolitan Opera's The Met: Live in HD saw strong sales for Saturday's live transmission of Verdi's Aida, which grossed $2.6 million from 800 theaters domestically. Overseas, it was seen by 116,000 people 850 screens in 30 countries in Europe, 11 countries in Latin America, Russia, the Bahamas, Egypt, Israel, Jamaica, Morocco and Qatar. The series, now in its seventh season, is enjoying its best season ever.
Here are the full results for the weekend of Dec. 14-16 at domestic box office:
Title, Weeks in Release/Theater Count, Studio, Three Day Weekend Total, Cume
1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 1/4,045, New Line/MGM, $84.8 million.
2. Rise of the Guardians, 4/3,387, Paramount/DreamWorks Animation, $7.4 million, $71.4 million.
3. Lincoln, 6/2,285, DreamWorks/Disney, $7.2 million, $107.9 million.
4. Skyfall, 6/2,924, Sony/MGM, $7 million, $272.4 million.
5. Life of Pi, 4/2,548, Fox, $5.4 million, $69.6 million.
6. Twilight: Breaking Dawn -- Part 2, 5/3,02, Summit, $5.2 million, $276.9 million.
7. Wreck-It Ralph, 7/2,549, Disney, $3.3 million, $168.8 million.
8. Playing for Keeps, 2/2,840, FilmDistrict, $3.2 million, $10.8 million.
9. Red Dawn, 4/2,250, FilmDistrict/MGM, $2.4 million, $40.9 million.
10. Silver Linings Playbook, 5/371, The Weinstein Co., $2.1 million, $17 million.