Although early reviews of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” have been mixed, a negative critical consensus has done nothing to dampen audiences’ appetite to see the newest installment of the film series based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories.

Watching “The Hobbit” for free online has become the white whale for audiences hoping to avoid overblown movie-theater prices and long lines, as it did with “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Avengers,” and countless others before it.

While the film has yet to leak online in its entirety, clips of “The Hobbit” have quietly snuck onto the Internet less than 24 hours after the film was released in the U.S.

Demand for the “Lord of the Rings” prequel has been so intense that Box Office Mojo predicted it would eventually gross $330 million, just a few ticks less than "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King's" $377 million, but more than any other feature to be released during the winter movie season.

Previously, blockbusters have seen their in-theater demands replicated among online pirates and streaming sites. After dominating the summer movie season, “The Dark Knight Rises” was projected to rank among the most illegally downloaded films of all time.

“Skyfall” ranked third on Box Office Mojo's "Holiday 2012 Forecast" list with a projected gross of $185 million. The newest James Bond film already has surpassed that sum, according to BoxOffice.com. Along the way, more than 50 bootleg copies of it surfaced in the first month after its release. By that logic, a free BitTorrent copy or stream of “The Hobbit” could raise the standard for early digital providers again.

One of the major drawbacks with watching “The Hobbit” online will be failing to appreciate the new strategy used by director Peter Jackson. He filmed the movie with the idea to play it back at 48 images per second, twice the normal speed of a movie.

Early audiences complained of motion sickness, but Jackson defended the method during an interview with Bloomberg News. Of course, he almost certainly didn’t mean for the film to be watched on a computer.  

“As a filmmaker, it’s a joy because it gives a more immersive, realistic feel,” Jackson said. “It’s much more gentle on your eyes. You don’t get the eyestrain and headaches.”

Generally, when films first leak on the Internet, they are uploaded from a video camera that had been held by someone sitting in a theater and trying to avoid detection from theater staff.

In any case, clips of “The Hobbit” did make it online in the days leading to its release. Below is an expanded segment posted by IFC that first appeared in the movie trailer. It features Bilbo Baggins’ dwarf allies singing “Misty Mountain.”