'Hobbit' sequel opens with $73.7 million to lead box office

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” the second film in Peter Jackson’s trilogy, collected $73.7 million in its opening weekend for Time Warner and MGM to lead U.S. and Canadian ticket sales.

The film lagged behind its predecessor, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which opened with $84.6 million a year ago, Rentrak said in an emailed statement Sunday. “Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas,” the eighth installment in the comedy series, collected $16 million in third place for Lions Gate Entertainment.

“The Desolation of Smaug,” Jackson’s fifth film based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, adds to Time Warner’s box-office lead among studios as the end of 2013 approaches. Together, the first “Hobbit” and three “Lord of the Rings” movies from 2001 to 2003 generated more than $3.9 billion in global box- office sales.

This weekend’s film had an “excellent” debut, “although the movie did come in a little below expectations,” said Paul Sweeney, a Bloomberg Industries analyst. He said he expected a “good run” in the U.S., and said the studios are focused on a growth in sales in international markets.

“The Desolation of Smaug” was projected to collect $80 million, according to researcher BoxOffice.com, and may take in $280 million in its entire domestic run. As with the first “Hobbit” picture, the film’s success will hinge more on international sales, which total $131.2 million so far, according to Rentrak.

“An Unexpected Journey” generated $303 million in U.S. theaters and went on to do $1.02 billion worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.

“The marketplace is little bit more crowded this time and that’s going to hurt it,” said Phil Contrino, chief analyst for BoxOffice.com.

Besides “Madea” and holdovers “Frozen,” from Walt Disney, and Lions Gate’s “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” two movies that opened in a handful of theaters will be released widely next weekend: Disney’s “Saving Mr. Banks” and “American Hustle,” from Sony.

Industrywide, U.S. and Canadian ticket revenue has risen less than 1 percent to $10.2 billion in 2013. Time Warner’s hits include “Gravity,” a Golden Globe best-drama nominee, which sat atop the box office for three weeks in October.

In “The Desolation of Smaug,” Martin Freeman returns as the hobbit Bilbo Baggins. Ian McKellen reprises Gandalf, the wizard he portrayed in the first Hobbit film and the original “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The movie picks up where the last one ended, with Baggins, Gandalf and their dwarf friends continuing the quest to reclaim their homeland, Erebor, from the dragon Smaug, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch.

RottenTomatoes.com, a website that aggregates reviews, gives the film a 74 percent positive rating, an improvement over the 65 percent rating earned by “An Unexpected Journey.

“Although ‘Smaug’ is not quite as golden as the best of ‘The Rings,’ the film is infused with an eccentricity and electricity that keep most of its nearly three hours humming,” Los Angeles Times critic Betsy Sharkey wrote.

The highest-grossing film of Jackson’s franchise is 2003’s “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which collected $377 million domestically and $1.13 billion worldwide.

“The Desolation of Smaug” is showing in as many as 3,300 theaters that offer 3-D, more than 300 of them premium large-format theaters. Warner Bros., the distributor, and two of the largest North American theater chains, Regal Entertainment Group and Cineplex, are squeezing out extra revenue with so-called super tickets that offer reclining and reserved seating and with better sound.

“Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas,” the only other film to open in wide release, was projected by BoxOffice.com to take in $33 million for Lions Gate. The holiday comedy was directed, written and produced by Perry, who also stars as the main character in drag, Mabel “Madea” Simmons.

In this installment, Madea helps a niece pay a surprise visit to her daughter, and announces she won’t be coming home for Christmas.