By Grady Smith
Updated December 13, 2012 at 12:00 PM EST
Bilbo Baggins

After two dreadful weekends at the box office, Gandalf, Bilbo, and a whole motley crew of dwarves have come to the film industry’s rescue — and not even the dragon Smaug will be able to keep them from grabbing a whole lot of treasure.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first entry in a trilogy produced by Warner Bros. (and technically MGM as well) for a reported $600 million, arrives in theaters nine years after the original Lord of the Rings franchise concluded. Those three Lord of the Rings films opened over this same weekend in Dec. 2001, 2002 and 2003, grossing $47.2 million, $62.0 million, and $72.6 million in their respective debut weekends, and all three eventually earned over $300 million domestically. Because the series was so well-received from the very beginning, each subsequent release performed better than its predecessor, and the final entry, The Return of the King, topped out with $377 million domestically and $1.1 billion worldwide — not to mention an Academy Award for Best Picture.

After nearly a decade of waiting — during which the LOTR series was devoured voraciously on DVD — The Hobbit, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to the LOTR series, is now poised to maintain the franchise’s box office vitality, at least on opening weekend. The Hobbit will almost certainly continue the trend of rising opening weekend grosses. The question is now how high it can climb.

Warner Bros. has been wise to market The Hobbit, which features a mostly new cast of characters, as a true companion to the Lord of the Rings films. There’s been no shortage of Gandalf or Gollum imagery in the press, and Elijah Wood has appeared at multiple events in the lead-up to release. It helps that LOTR‘s director, Peter Jackson, signed on to helm the Hobbit features, as well. Thanks to the goodwill already built up for the first three films, it makes sense to assure audiences that they’ll get a similar product to what they already know and love.

And yet, The Hobbit isn’t a carbon copy of its predecessors. For one thing, its shot in a much-talked-about 48 frames-per-second rate (i.e. HFR 3-D), which has garnered ample negative pre-release criticism. Still, cinephiles are likely to turn up to check out the new technology out of sheer curiosity, and most mainstream moviegoers are likely unaware that there’s been any frame rate debate at all. It shouldn’t have a huge effect either way. Only 461 of The Hobbit‘s 4,045 theaters are exhibiting the film in HFR 3-D this weekend.

The Hobbit also veers from the earlier LOTR films in that it is geared much more toward families, which may anger fans of the original trilogy’s epic tone, but it should give it a big boost during the family-friendly holiday season. The shift in tone hasn’t gone over totally well with critics (EW gives the film a “B+”), but reviews have been solid enough that it shouldn’t matter too much this weekend.

Time and time again this year, audiences have demonstrated their love of event films, and The Hobbit offers that sort of scope this weekend. The film is opening in a market that is in dire need of a hit, which should please movie fans that have stayed home for the past few frames — plus, it’s got a high-profile nine-minute preview of the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness playing before it, which is destined to bring in Trekkies — and it should best every other film by at least a factor of ten over the Friday-to-Sunday period. The Hobbit will also break the December opening weekend record, which is currently held by 2007’s I Am Legend, which started with $77.2 million.

Predictions vary wildly for The Hobbit: Some are predicting a $140 million weekend. Others put it on pace for about $86 million. Me? I’m saying around $110 million. I’m tempted to ratchet that number up higher, but December isn’t a time of year when rushing to the theater is necessary, since so many families will have so much time to go to the cinema during the next few weeks. Thus, I’m sticking with $110 million, and the fact that that seems somewhat conservative is a sign of how inflated both opening weekend grosses and ticket prices have become since Lord of the Rings‘ time in theaters.

What do you think The Hobbit will earn this weekend?

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