Sir Peter Jackson's The Hobbit led the box office with a haul of US$84.8 million, a record-setting opening better than the three previous Lord of the Rings films.
The Warner Bros Middle Earth epic was the biggest December opening ever at the North American box office, surpassing Will Smith's I Am Legend, which opened with US$77.2 million in 2007, according to studio estimates Sunday.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey also passed the December opening of Avatar, which opened with US$77 million. Internationally, The Hobbit also added US$138.2 million, for an impressive worldwide debut well north of US$200 million.
Despite mixed reviews, the 3D adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's first novel in the fantasy series was an even bigger draw than the last Lord of the Rings movie, The Return of the King. That film opened with US$72.6 million. The Hobbit is the first of another planned trilogy, with two more films to be squeezed out of Tolkien's book.
While Jackson's Rings movies drew many accolades - The Return of the King won best picture from the Academy Awards - the path for The Hobbit has been rockier. It received no Golden Globes nominations on Thursday, though all three Rings films were nominated by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for best picture.
Particularly criticized has been the film's 48-frames-per-second (double the usual rate), a hyper-detailed look that some have found jarring. Most moviegoers didn't see The Hobbit in that version, though, as the new technology was rolled out in only 461 of the 4,045 theatres playing the film.
Regardless of any misgivings over The Hobbit, the film was a hit with audiences. They graded the film with an "A" CinemaScore.
"What's really important, what makes this special is the CinemaScore," said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros.
"All these things point to a great word of mouth. We haven't even made it to the Christmas holidays yet. Kids are still in school this week."
The Hobbit was far and away the biggest draw in North American theatres, with no other new wide release. Paramount's Rise of the Guardians continued to draw the family crowd, with US$7.4 million, bringing its cumulative total to US$71.4 millon. Oscar contender Lincoln from Walt Disney crossed the US$100 million mark, adding another US$7.2 million to bring its six-week total to US$107.9 million. And Sony's James Bond film Skyfall, with another US$7 million domestically, drew closer to a global take of US$1 billion.
The box office continued to be on the upswing and with anticipated releases like Les Miserables, Django Unchained and The Guilt Trip approaching in the holiday movie-going season.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at US and Canadian theatres, according to Hollywood.com (all figures in US dollars):
1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, $84.8 million.
2. Rise of the Guardians, $7.4 million.
3. Lincoln, $7.2 million.
4. Skyfall, $7 million.
5. Life of Pi, $5.4 million.
6. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2, $5.2 million.
7. Wreck-It Ralph, $3.3million.
8. Playing for Keeps, $3.2 million.
9. Red Dawn, $2.4 million.
10. Silver Linings Playbook, $2 million.