"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" launched Peter Jackson's new trilogy with the biggest December box-office opening ever in the U.S., taking in $85 million in three days.
Jackson's prequel to the blockbuster "Lord of the Rings" series, the first of three installments, shattered the record for biggest December debut set in 2007 by "I Am Legend" with $77.2 million. The overall box office was the highest ever for a December weekend at $134 million, and was up 14 percent over the comparable weekend last year.
It's been nine years since moviegoers have had the chance to revisit Middle-earth and they were glad to be back, giving "The Hobbit" an "A" CinemaScore. The film is directed by Jackson and stars Ian McKellen as the wizard, Gandalf, and Martin Freeman as the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. New Line and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer co-produced and co-financed the film.
The "Lord of the Rings" movies all opened the week before Christmas, but Warner Bros. head of distribution Dan Fellman said the studio saw an opportunity with "The Hobbit" to get a jump on the holiday season.
"You sort of lead with your chin when you go out early like this," Fellman told TheWrap, "but we knew we had a great picture, and we think we're set up to build on this from here. Next week is tricky since it's still pre-holiday, but by the time we get to Christmas we'll be rolling."
Fellman said one of the goals was to attract a new generation of Middle-earth fans, and the numbers suggest that could happen. The audience was 42 percent under 25 years of age and 57 percent males.
Also read: 'The Hobbit': What the Critics Think
Fellman noted that school's are generally still not out for the holiday break and that, combined with the "A+" CinemaScore that moviegoers under 18 – who made up 20 percent of the audience – gave the film point to the potential to capitalize on younger audiences in the coming weeks.
The debut by "The Hobbit" is bigger than any of the "Rings" movies, including the franchise finale "The Return of the King," which opened to $72.6 million domestically in 2003.
"The Hobbit" is benefiting from a higher mark-up on 3D tickets. It is the first adaptation of the beloved J.R.R. Tolkien books to arrive in theaters in that format, which accounted for 3,160 of the total 4,045 screens and made up 49 percent of the overall gross. The per-location average overall was nearly $21,000. The 326 Imax locations brought in $10.1 million, averaging more than $30,000 per theater over the three days.
About 460 theaters showed "The Hobbit" in the groundbreaking but controversial 48 frame-per-second format -- which doubles the standard film speed and provides more clarity -- that Jackson utilized when he shot the movie. Between the high-speed film, 3D and Imax versions and combinations of those formats, moviegoers had six available options for viewing "The Hobbit." Imax screens playing the film in the 48 fps format averaged $44,000 per location.
Friday's grosses for "The Hobbit" were swelled by the $13 million in sales from midnight screenings at 3,100 locations, 2,160 of which were 3D.
Finishing a distant No. 2 was DreamWorks' animated kids movie "Rise of the Guardians," which brought in $7.4 million to up its overall domestic total after four weeks to $71 million.
In its sixth week, DreamWorks and Disney's Oscar front-runner "Lincoln' brought in $7.2 million to raise its overall domestic total to nearly $108 million. Sony's James Bond thriller "Skyfall," also in its sixth week, finished fourth with $7 million. It has taken in $272 million domestically.
Fox's Oscar hopeful "Life of Pi" added $5.4 million this weekend. Director Ang Lee's lyrical epic has taken in nearly $70 million after four weeks.