Once again the Hollywood trumpets are sounding for another “record-breaking” weekend at the box office, this time for Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth-set fantasy “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” As was reported over and over again on Sunday and Monday, the 3D adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s troll-laden children’s novel raked in $84.8 million in ticket sales this weekend. It’s the best December opening ever, crushing the previous $77.2 million record set by Will Smith’s “I Am Legend.”
Or so we’re told. The reality, of course, is that “The Hobbit’s” record-setting haul simply reflects the mundane reality that moviegoers are paying more to see it. Average ticket prices have risen by more than a dollar since “I Am Legend” opened in 2007, and that film didn’t have the benefit of pricey 3D theaters. If you start to do the math, it looks pretty close in terms of the actual number of tickets sold -- with “The Hobbit” selling about 10 million tickets compared with 11 million for “I Am Legend.”
What’s more, once ticket prices are adjusted for inflation, “The Hobbit” didn’t even come close to beating Peter Jackson’s previous Tolkien adaptation, “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” which opened in 2003. That film, also a December release, took in $72.6 million on its opening weekend, and it did so at a time when the average ticket price was almost $2.00 less than it is today.
Even if we didn’t factor in the additional cost of 3D and IMAX theaters, “Lord of the Rings” still beat “The Hobbit” by about 2 million tickets. That’s based on a rough estimate of the films’ box-office grosses divided by annual average ticket prices provided by the National Association of Theatre Owners.
But if so many more people went to see “Lord of the Ring” than “The Hobbit,” why is the Hollywood echo chamber touting yet another box-office record? Two reasons. First, “record breaking weekend” makes a more clickable headline than “no records were broken this weekend.” And second, Warner Bros. (NYSE: TXW) -- like all the “big six” majors -- really wants us to buy the hype.
To be certain, “The Hobbit” did perform well, and it’s clear that hardcore Tolkien/Jackson fans rushed out to see it. But the film, so far, has not garnered the same gushing critical acclaim bestowed upon its predecessors. Moreover, it has been a project beset with controversy. Jackson himself has gone on the defense after a mixed response to his pioneering 48-frames-per-second film rate, which some critics dismissed as a jarring. The movie also caught heat from animal-rights groups after 27 animals, including horses, reportedly died during production in New Zealand. PETA has even called for a boycott. Amid such baggage, it’s easy to see how the simple modifier “record-breaking” could become such a sought-after commodity.
As IBTimes reported last month, some journalists in recent years have begun to criticize the oft-reported box office numbers presented every week by Nielsen EDI. By simply spouting off raw tallies, critics say, reporters are being lazy, not taking into account the context of a film’s budget, the number of screens it opens on, or how long its been playing. All things considered, being No. 1 at the North American box office doesn’t necessarily correlate to a movie’s profitability.
“The Hobbit” opened on Dec. 12 on 4,045 screens. The next-biggest movie to open this weekend was Travis Fine’s “Any Day Now,” which played on 16 screens. That Jackson’s mega-budget epic would open at No. 1 is a given. The real story is that it performed ever so slightly below expectations. But then that’s not a great headline either.