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By Gary Susman
December 24, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
The Lord of the Rings: Pierre Vinet

BOX OFFICE REPORT It’s no surprise that Tolkien fans would drive ”The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” to a No. 1 opening during a crowded weekend that saw four other new films. (It’s also no surprise, alas, that those fans would come to the theater dressed as hobbits and elves.) What is surprising is the numbers. The movie earned an estimated $45.3 million between Friday and Sunday, and has earned $73.1 million since it opened Wednesday — very good for a three-hour movie that can be screened fewer times a day than most, but not in the $80-$90 million range some analysts predicted. Still, its first three days were enough to surpass the $38.1 million record for a December opening set by ”Ocean’s 11” a couple weeks ago. That film hung on at No. 2 with $14.6 million. With little family-fare competition, ”Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius” rocketed to a No. 3 opening, earning $14 million. Last week’s winner, “‘Vanilla Sky,’ dropped to fifth place with $12.1 million.

The other big surprise was the weekend’s other three openings. Even though the rappers were inexperienced film comics, Method Man and Redman‘s joint venture ”How High,” went as high as No. 5, rolling in $7.6 million in ticket sales. Yet veteran funnymen Jim Carrey (in a serious role) and Tim Allen barely squeaked into the top 10, with Carrey’s Oscar hopeful ”The Majestic” opening at No. 8 with $5 million and Allen’s “”Joe Somebody” opening at No. 9 with $3.7 million.

”Rings” also enjoyed a record for a single December day with its opening Wednesday of $18.2 million. That number was boosted by some theaters’ extra screenings that started Tuesday at midnight. Gandalf himself, Ian McKellen, attended one such midnight premiere in New York, telling the assembled hobbitheads, ”Welcome to the long-expected party. Put down the popcorn, turn down the cell phones, and hang on to your bladders.”