"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," part one of a 3-D trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's novel, generated $84.8 million in weekend sales at U.S. and Canadian cinemas, propelling studios toward an annual record.
The film from director Peter Jackson, Warner Bros.' New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. set a new weekend mark for a December opening, topping "I Am Legend," starring Will Smith, which had $77.2 million in sales in 2007, researcher Hollywood.com Box-Office said Sunday. It also outdrew "The Return of the King," the last of Jackson's earlier trilogy from Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings."
With films from Tom Cruise, Hugh Jackman, Quentin Tarantino and Judd Apatow joining "The Hobbit" in wide release by Christmas, Hollywood looks set to pass the 2009 domestic revenue record of $10.6 billion, according to Hollywood.com. Reports from Imax and AMC theaters suggest fans of "The Hobbit" liked new film-speed technology designed to boost realism and make watching in 3-D more comfortable, Warner officials said.
"The high frame rates were the best-performing screen averages," Dan Fellman, Warner Bros. president of domestic theatrical distribution, said in an interview. "Imax sent me their breakdown and AMC had very similar results. It looks like it's the choice fans are making."
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is the first movie filmed and shown at 48 frames a second, double the usual rate. While critics such as Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times urged fans to see conventional screenings, Jackson said the technology creates a "more immersive, realistic feel" and eliminates blurring in action scenes in regular 3-D pictures.
"Peter Jackson kind of took the first leap with this technology and definitely lent some credibility to it," said Eric Wold, a B. Riley & Co. analyst in San Francisco. "Whatever they can do to advance the 3-D experience will definitely make the consumers more comfortable paying the extra price."
The film was expected to take in about $75 million over the weekend, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Hollywood.com's box-office unit. Ben Mogil, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus & Co., estimated $80 million. "The Hobbit" also collected $138.2 million internationally, bringing its worldwide total to $223 million, according to Dergarabedian.
In "The Hobbit," Bilbo Baggins is recruited by the wizard Gandalf to join an expedition of dwarves seeking to reclaim their homeland and a treasure lost to the dragon Smaug. The book was published in 1937, almost two decades before the first of Tolkien's "Rings" novels.
Jackson has said he has drawn from Tolkien's notes and appendices to provide enough material for three films. "The Hobbit" stars Martin Freeman as Bilbo. Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf from the Rings trilogy. His character has a larger role in the film than he gets in Tolkien's book.
Andy Serkis again plays Gollum, the slimy, half-naked creature from the Rings trilogy that features motion-capture technology. The second movie in the new trilogy, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," is scheduled for release next year, according to Internet Movie Database.
Hollywood heads into the final two weekends of 2012 with $10.2 billion in domestic revenue, up 6 percent from a year earlier in sales and attendance, according to Hollywood.com.
Four films open in wide release this week, including "Jack Reacher," a crime drama from Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures with Cruise in the title role. On Dec. 19 Paramount also opens "The Guilt Trip" with Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen. Walt Disney Co.'s Pixar brings back "Monsters Inc. in 3-D the same day and Comcast Corp.'s Universal Pictures opens "This Is 40," from "Knocked Up" director Apatow, on Dec. 21.
They're followed on Christmas Day by three films making their debut in wide release: Weinstein Co.'s "Django Unchained," directed by Tarantino, Universal's "Les Miserables," a musical with Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, and "Parental Guidance," a comedy from News Corp.'s Fox studio featuring Billy Crystal and Bette Midler.
Among returning films, "Rise of the Guardians" had sales of $7.4 million to place second for the weekend. The film from DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. pits storybook figures such as Santa Claus, Jack Frost and the Sandman against an evil force threatening children.
"Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's examination of the 16th U.S. president's political campaign to end slavery, placed third with receipts of $7.2 million, bringing its domestic total to $107.9 million. It was produced by the director's DreamWorks Studios and is being distributed by Walt Disney Co.
The James Bond thriller "Skyfall" took in $7 million for distributor Sony Corp. and partner Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in fourth place in its sixth week of release. Global sales to date total $951 million.
Weekend revenue for the top 12 films rose 19 percent to $131.1 million from a year earlier, Hollywood.com said.
"It's been a pretty broad recovery since the summer," Wold said. "The strength has been pretty broad-based in a number of different titles and dramas, not just in a single movie."