NEW YORK - Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" led the box office with a haul of $84.8 million, a record-setting opening better than the three previous "Lord of the Rings" films.
The Warner Bros. Middle Earth epic was the biggest December opening ever, surpassing Will Smith's "I Am Legend," which opened with $77.2 million in 2007, according to studio estimates Sunday. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" also passed the December opening of "Avatar," which opened with $77 million. Internationally, "The Hobbit" also added $138.2 million, for an impressive debut well north of $200 million.
Despite weak reviews, the 3-D adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's first novel in the fantasy series was an even bigger draw than the last "Lord of the Rings" movie, "The Return of the King." That film opened with $72.6 million. "The Hobbit" is the first of another planned trilogy, with two more films to be squeezed out of Tolkien's book.
While Jackson's "Rings" movies drew many accolades - "The Return of the King" won best picture from the Academy Awards - the path for "The Hobbit" has been rockier. It received no Golden Globes nominations on Thursday, though all three "Rings" films were nominated by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for best picture.
Particularly criticized has been the film's 48-frames-per-second (double the usual rate), a hyper-detailed look that some have found jarring. Most moviegoers didn't see "The Hobbit" in that version, though, as the new technology was rolled out in only 461 of the 4,045 theaters playing the film.
Regardless of any misgivings over "The Hobbit," the film was a hit with audiences. They graded the film with an "A" CinemaScore.
"What's really important, what makes this special is the CinemaScore," said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. "All these things point to a great word of mouth. We haven't even made it to the Christmas holidays yet. Kids are still in school this week."
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Where available, latest international numbers are also included. Final domestic figures will be released today.
1. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," $84.8 million.
2. "Rise of the Guardians," $7.4 million.