''Return of the King'' will top the box office. Despite new films from box office heavyweights Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise, ''Rings'' will rule

By Dave Karger
December 19, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

Hobbit freaks of the world, rejoice! The third and final installment of Peter Jackson’s ”Lord of the Rings” trilogy, ”The Return of the King,” is now in theaters and poised to dominate the box office for the next month.

”King” premiered on Wednesday to fan ferocity and unanimously positive reviews, cementing its status as not only one of the most surefire hits of the year but also as the movie to beat at February’s Oscar ceremony. Last December, ”The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” opened with $62 million over the three-day weekend and $102 million since its debut, also on a Wednesday. Thanks to all the great buzz, core fans and curious novices alike will hit the ‘plexes, resulting in a weekend gross of around $65 million over three days and $105 over five for ”King.”

The week’s other new wide release is ”Mona Lisa Smile,” the latest film from Julia Roberts, who hasn’t had a full-fledging starring role in a film since ”America’s Sweethearts” two and a half years ago. Roberts’ last three starring vehicles — ”Sweethearts,” ”The Mexican,” and ”Erin Brockovich” — all opened between $20 and $30 million, and ”Mona Lisa,” in which Roberts plays a 1950s college professor, should be no different. Look for Julia to claim second place with a $25 million debut.

Last week’s top film, ”Something’s Gotta Give,” starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, will see a 35 percent drop to about $10 or $11 million, while Tom Cruise’s ”The Last Samurai” may slip about 45 percent to $7 million. And Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear’s comedy ”Stuck on You” will likely manage a top-five finish for one more week with a second-weekend take of $5 million. After that, though, don’t expect it to stick around.