"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" stands to collect more gold at the box office this weekend than the dragon Smaug is hoarding inside the Lonely Mountain.
Peter Jackson's 3-D prequel to "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy should open to between $120 million and $140 million in the U.S. and Canada this weekend, said people who have seen pre-release surveys. That would be the fifth-biggest domestic debut of the year.
All three "Rings" movies opened on a Wednesday. The most successful, 2003's "The Return of the King," took in $124 million during its first five days.
All told, the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy sold more than $2.9 billion worth of tickets worldwide.
While anticipation for "The Hobbit" is huge, with nearly 60% of moviegoers saying they are definitely interested in seeing the film, reviews have been mixed. Many critics have been particularly harsh on a version playing at 48 frames per second -- double the typical 24 -- that some say looks like high-definition television.
Though it's playing at only 461 out of more than 4,000 theaters showing "The Hobbit" in the U.S. and Canada, the "high frame rate" version has garnered an outsized amount of pre-release buzz, much of it negative. However, it's likely to be of great interest to fanboys and cinephiles, as Jackson has aggressively touted and endorsed the new technology.
Hard-core fans are likely to turn out en masse for late-night shows starting at midnight Thursday. What remains to be seen is how many people with no affinity for elves, dwarfs and dragons will attend and whether the movie will play to family audiences who typically go to theaters together around Christmas.
The biggest question may be whether audiences are excited or frustrated by the epic length of "The Hobbit." "An Unexpected Journey" is nearly three hours, despite being one of three movies based on the single J.R.R. Tolkien book. To pad out the story, Jackson and his collaborators have added details from the appendices of "The Lord of the Rings" as well as invented material.
"The Lord of the Rings" trilogy took in nearly two-thirds of its box-office receipts overseas. With international markets having grown over the last decade, that statistic is likely to increase on "The Hobbit."
It debuts in 55 foreign markets this weekend, though several lucrative countries such as Australia and Russia will launch in the coming weeks. "The Hobbit" is expected to play in China but does not yet have an opening date in the tightly controlled nation.
The movie has already opened in Jackson's native New Zealand, where it collected $643,000 on its first day. That's the biggest ever non-holiday Wednesday take for a motion picture in that country.
No other new movies from major studios are daring to challenge "The Hobbit" this weekend, with long-running films like "Skyfall" and "Rise of the Guardians" probably fighting for the remaining scraps.
Thursday's Golden Globe nominations could give a boost to several still playing pictures, particularly "Lincoln," which garnered the most nods with seven. It was expected to cross the $100-million domestic box-office mark Thursday, 34 days after it first came out in limited release.
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