By Shawn Robbins
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is raring up for its December 13 domestic launch, and the anticipated film is tracking for a possible debut north of $75 million. Last year's An Unexpected Journey set the current December record with an $84.6 million bow.
The Data of Smaug
Industry tracking suggests interest in Smaug is about 8 percent behind where Journey stood at the same point before release. According to the survey, men over the age of 25 represent the sector where the most anticipation has been lost (though not by a significantly large margin), while women under 25 have retained the most interest of the four quadrants (giving it a slightly higher "first choice" score than Journey at the same point before release).
Generally speaking, the first Hobbit film's tracking peaked early before critical reviews came in--leading to a drop-off in upfront demand during the final pre-release cycle. So far, Smaug seems to be taking a different path.
Our social network number-crunching reveals that Twitter discussion for Smaug is 5 percent ahead of the levels of its predecessor. The quality of tweets has shown improvement with Smaug's 9.4 positive-to-negative comment ratio on Twitter (versus 5-to-1 for Journey).
On Flixster, the second Hobbit boasts an impressive 99 percent anticipation score (besting Journey by 4 percent)--however, that's aggregated from nearly 33 percent fewer voters, indicating more modest expectations from the online crowd. The daily rate of new Facebook fans is virtually identical between the two films, while over 12 million people have "liked" The Hobbit's official page in the past year.
The Hobbit at the Box Office (So Far)
Fairly or not, An Unexpected Journey has been the target of some online criticism from both fans and non-fans since, and before, its release. The decision to split the classic J.R.R. Tolkien children's novel into two films wasn't popular to begin with, and the negative reactions intensified when two pics became three in mid-2012. The oft-toxic feedback toward Journey's High Frame Rate (HFR) CinemaCon footage last year didn't help matters either. Ultimately, its December opening record felt underwhelming to some given the fervent decade-long demand which preceded the adaptation long before anyone knew it would even be made. Upon release, some critics and moviegoers were less than enthusiastic about the film's lighter tone (among other things) in comparison to Sir Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
One year later, it's no surprise that hype is more cautiously restrained for The Desolation of Smaug. While much has been made of the fact that The Hobbit fell short of (admittedly) highly optimistic box office expectations, we can't forget that Journey still went on to become a sizable hit with regular moviegoers and fans; chief among them were family audiences. An Unexpected Journey reached $303 million domestically and $1.02 billion globally with the aid of holiday business and 3D.
What does this all mean for Smaug? A modest dip in domestic returns is historically likely based on the mixed reactions toward last year's entry. The promise of the titular dragon's visual grandeur, a more action-driven plot with fresh locales, new characters, and the "return" of Orlando Bloom's pointy-eared Elvish princeling (Legolas) should work in this film's favor when it comes to retaining the franchise's fans, especially younger and family crowds. Objectively speaking, though, it'll take more than faith in those elements alone to convince some to come back.
One loose comparison may be that of the first two Harry Potter movies--the first having introduced its family-oriented feel to general audiences in 2001, followed by the second entry opening to similar numbers (through the strength of its fan base) but ultimately losing 17 percent of its predecessor's total domestic audience (dipping from $318 million to $262 million). In a bit of historical irony, Potter's box office thunder was stolen by Rings itself between installments--a reversed circumstance that may be in play between this year's Hobbit installment and the juggernaut that is The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
Critically speaking, early reactions seem to indicate a more audience-satisfying outing in Smaug. Should similar opinions emerge dominant when the flood of reviews comes in over the next week, it would reinforce the odds of even longer staying power at the box office than Journey earned. Looking abroad, the film's late February release in China will likely mute grosses there again, but in general, Smaug is expected to retain most of the first entry's $714 million overseas box office.
Time will soon tell if Mr. Jackson and co. have crafted a more palatable middle entry for the larger Rings audience in their Hobbit trilogy. Still, even with an expected decline of domestic returns to the vicinity of $280 million (the BoxOffice.com team's official forecast), The Desolation of Smaug is poised to become another global holiday blockbuster in the Tolkien/Jackson library.
What do you think The Desolation of Smaug will do at the box office? Sound off on the BoxOffice Forums!
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug trailer: