By one standard, the $84.8 million in receipts over the weekend for Peter Jackson's first crack at "The Hobbit" was a success. The 3-D film about Bilbo Baggins' unexpected journey was, as box-office pundits reminded us, the biggest-ever opening for a December release. And the film's "A" CinemaScore suggested the fans got what they came for.
But there was also plenty lacking. Pre-release estimates had the New Line/Warner Bros/MGM movie (budgeted at a whopping $250 million) opening to $120 million or higher. That's a massive number--but for a massively hyped 3-D release on a weekend when everyone else had moved out of the way, it was also a fair one, and the actual total didn't come close.
Yet it wasn't just about the dollar amounts. The numbers for "The Hobbit" were part of a patchwork of struggle that had long ago enveloped the film franchise.
This was a production that saw its financing jeopardized because of a Hollywood bankruptcy. It was a franchise that walked headlong into a soap opera when Guillermo del Toro dropped out of the film after devoting years of his life to it. Even in the few weeks before release--normally a time when a Hollywood machine like this really starts clicking and humming--the gears caught.
First there was a controversy over potentially inhumane treatment of animals. Then some mixed reviews. And, along the way, a divisive reaction to the decision to shoot in the hyper-real 48 frames per second.
Getting a movie of this complexity to the finish line is itself a victory, and not a small one given the precedent and the hurdles. (Not insignificantly, the film also had to open on a weekend when much of the nation was still reeling from the Newtown, Conn., shootings.) But even those touting "The Hobbit's" triumphant end to a long race might privately acknowledge that this film didn't surge through the ribbon with raised arms as much as it did stagger into it winded and relieved.
Playing into all this is New Line's and Jackson's decision to split "The Hobbit" into three movies, a decision made just a few months before release. That may well prove a savvy financial move, and there may yet be a creative justification. But the news also had the effect of setting the bar unnaturally high. "You know this movie you haven't seen yet? Well, we're betting you it's so good it's worth two more installments."
Which brings us to the future of the Jackson films. Strong international plays and a long run in theaters for this first "Hobbit" could keep the franchise floating commercially. But will it have cultural buoyancy?
Jackson's previous Tolkien-derived trilogy, after all, was able to build momentum from one film to the next, culminating in a final "Lord of the Rings" installment that shattered the box office and swept through the Oscars.
There's hardly a clear path to that here. In fact, there's a lot of work to be done. There's still a casual fan to win over. There's persuading portions of a tastemaking class that sees a "Hobbit" trilogy as an indulgence more than an indispensability. There are theater owners and fans unsure of a new format.
A "Lord of the Rings"-like juggernaut could still emerge. But it's much easier to build momentum if you don't stall a bit at the start.
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