As expected, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, crushed the competition at the box office in its debut weekend, setting a new December record in the process.

The Middle-earth-set film grossed $84.8 million over its first three days, handily surpassing I Am Legend‘s $77.2 million bow, which has held the record for best December debut since 2007. The Hobbit earned that $84.8 million from 4,045 theaters, giving it a powerful $20,958 per theater average. Included in that theater count were 326 IMAX locations, which accounted for $10.1 million of the weekend gross, as well as 461 locations that showed the film in the controversial 48 frames per second rate — those screenings, thankfully, had no surcharge. About 49 percent of The Hobbit‘s weekend take came from 3-D showings.

All told, The Hobbit‘s debut weekend was obviously strong, but it must be said that it finished at the low end of pre-release expectations, most of which had the film earning more than $100 million in its debut frame. The Hobbit, the first in a trilogy produced by New Line and MGM (with Warner Bros. distributing) for a reported $600 million, earned $37.5 million on Friday, yet it only managed an internal multiplier (that’s weekend gross divided by Friday gross) of 2.25 — a very low number that signifies front-loaded performance. Judging by The Hobbit‘s 25 percent plummet on Saturday, it appears that the Tolkien faithful rushed out for the film early in the weekend.

It remains to be seen whether The Hobbit can match the domestic totals of the Lord of the Rings films, which garnered gigantic grosses above $300 million from 2001-2003 (without 3D or IMAX prices). Dan Fellman, Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution, feels confident that The Hobbit is headed to gargantuan numbers in the post-Christmas moviegoing spree. “We’re very well-positioned to have a huge run,” says Fellman, who dismissed the high pre-release projections from box office prognosticators. “They were never anywhere near that from us,” he says.

Fellman also explained that the high frame rate screenings played particularly well, despite the media’s general ire for the experiment. “[AMC’s] biggest numbers came from high frame rate,” he says. According to a rep for IMAX, high frame rate screenings generated a $44,000 per screen average as opposed to a $31,000 average for regular IMAX showings.

Where the film goes from here is anyone’s guess. On the one hand, based on the weekend performance, it seems likely that The Hobbit will suffer from the fanboy effect and have a front-loaded run. On the other hand, the holiday season should help counteract such an issue, since kids will be out of school and adults off work. During the period beginning next weekend and extending until New Year’s Day, each weekday will play more like a weekend day, which should lift every film’s box office prospects. Good word-of-mouth will also help The Hobbit, as it earned an “A” CinemaScore from opening weekend audiences, which were 57 percent male and 58 percent above 25 years old.

Internationally, The Hobbit started off with a robust $138.2 million from 56 territories (notable markets the film did not open in include China, Australia, and Russia) over its first weekend, bringing its early global total to $223 million after only three days.

Holdovers made up the rest of the chart. DreamWorks’ $145 million animation Rise of the Guardians finished in second, dipping 29 percent to $7.4 million. After four weekends, the holiday-themed picture has amassed a disappointing $71.4 million. In third, Lincoln fell only 19 percent in the wake of the Golden Globe nominations (which, whether you care about them or not, do have an effect on the box office) to $7.2 million. The Steven Spielberg-directed drama has earned a terrific $107.9 million after six weeks.

Skyfall fell from first place down to fourth with $7 million over the weekend, bringing its total to $272.4 million. Worldwide, Skyfall‘s total has now climbed to $951 million, and with an opening in China set for early 2013, it’s now safe to say that Skyfall will reach $1 billion globally. Rounding out the Top 5 was Life of Pi, which has actually finished in fifth place on all four of its weekends at the box office. This time around, the $120 million Fox film dropped 35 percent to $5.4 million, good for a $69.6 million domestic total. Notably, Life of Pi is having a rather remarkable run in China, where it has already earned $84.3 million.

1. The Hobbit – $84.8 million

2. Rise of the Guardians – $7.4 million

3. Lincoln – $7.2 million

4. Skyfall – $7.0 million

5. Life of Pi – $5.4 million

In limited release, Silver Linings Playbook continued to prove its box office potential. The well-reviewed romantic comedy, by Top Ten Reviews, playing for the third straight weekend in 371 theaters, once again had the smallest drop in the Top 10, falling only 4 percent to $2.1 million. The Weinstein Co.’s $21 million film has brought in $17.0 million so far, and the studio is clearly waiting until just the right moment to continue the platforming strategy. With the right combination of awards buzz and publicity (star Jennifer Lawrence was just announced as an SNL host on the Jan. 19 show), Silver Linings Playbook could became an impressive sleeper hit.

The same can’t be said for two other limited releases, Hitchcock and Hyde Park on Hudson, both of which expanded this weekend to middling results. Hitchcock jumped from 181 theaters into 561, where it earned $1.1 million, which yielded an anemic $1,935 average. With $3.0 million so far, it seems unlikely that the Fox Searchlight film will make it to $10.0 million total. Focus’ Hyde Park, meanwhile, jumped into 36 theaters after debuting in four theaters last weekend. The presidential feature earned $297,400, which was fine, but its $8,261 average is only okay given its extra limited availability (which usually drives averages up), and it doesn’t merit widespread expansion.

Check back next weekend for full box office coverage of The Guilt Trip, Jack Reacher, Monsters Inc. 3D, and This is 40. And follow me on Twitter for extra box office musing during the week:

Read more:

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  • Movie
  • 170 minutes