Box Office Report: 'The Hobbit' Opening Sets December Record, Sort Of

Is the film's controversial new HFR format a hit?

The Hobbit, box office, unexpected journey, bilbo baggins, martin freeman
Warner Bros. Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
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WINNER OF THE WEEK: J.R.R. Tolkien The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey made a not-at-all unexpected journey to the top of the box office chart. Its debut, estimated at $84.8 million, set a record for the largest December opening weekend ever, though that record comes with a couple asterisks. One, it doesn't account for inflation. Director Peter Jackson's last visit to Middle Earth nine years ago, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, opened with $72.6 million, but at today's ticket prices, that would be $95.6 million. And that weekend figure came after the movie had already been open two days, drawing hardcore Hobbitheads on Wednesday and Thursday. Plus, unlike LOTR: ROTK, the new Hobbit was able to avail itself of six different screening formats, five of which came with surcharges (more on that, below).

LOSER OF THE WEEK: Nobody. First, because no one was foolish enough to open a new wide release movie opposite the mighty Bilbo Baggins and crew. Second, because Hobbitmania led to a nice spillover effect that benefited everybody; overall, the box office was up 68 percent from last week. So the aging movies that made up the rest of the chart held up well. Rise of the Guardians remained at Number Two with an estimated $7.4 million, down just 28 percent from last week. Lincoln, riding a wave of awards support (from last week's Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations) and opening on another 271 screens, was just a hair behind Guardians with an estimated $7.2 million. That's a slip of just 19 percent from a week ago, allowing the biopic to climb one notch on the chart and cross the $100-million mark to a total gross over six weeks of $107.9 million. And just behind Lincoln was Skyfall with an estimated $7.0 million. Last week's winner, the James Bond movie fell three places on the chart and saw a decline of 35 percent, for a six-week total of $272.4 million. Rounding out the top five was Life of Pi, with an estimated $5.4 million, also down 35 percent from a week ago, with a four-week total of $69.6 million.

Exclusive Images From 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'

UP TO SPEED: The Hobbit also marked the first experiment in releasing a commercial film in HFR (High Frame Rate) formats, since Jackson shot the movie at 48 frames per second, twice the rate that's been the cinema standard for 85 years. Critics argued over whether the HFR Hobbit, which presents a more fluid illusion of movement but also adds extra sharpness and clarity to the fantasy-world's artifice and fakery, was better or worse than standard 24 frames per second, but for most consumers, it was a moot point, as only 13 percent of the screens showing The Hobbit projected it in HFR. Still, viewers in some cities had as many as six format options to choose from: standard frame rate 2D, 3D, IMAX 2D, IMAX 3D, HFR 3D, and IMAX HFR 3D.

According to Warner Bros. and IMAX, the HFR screenings did well, with IMAX HFR 3D screenings pulling in a huge $44,000 per screen over the weekend, compared to $31,000 for standard-rate IMAX and an average of $21,000 for all six formats. Altogether, IMAX earnings represented about one-eighth of the box office take, while all three 3D formats represented about half the gross. None of that means that other filmmakers will be rushing to shoot in HFR, or that HFR will be as common as standard 3D is now, but we are going to be seeing a lot more of it, including in the next two Hobbit installments. Gird your eyeballs.