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Hobbit sets Dec record in US debut

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The Hobbit brought

home a big box office

treasure over the weekend, setting a December movie record with $84.77 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales as legions of fans turned out for the long-awaited big-screen return to Middle Earth.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” also rung up sales of $138.2 million in international markets. Global receipts for the prequel to the smash “Lord of the Rings” trilogy stood at $222.97 million through Sunday, distributor Warner Bros. said. The current projection for the total box office take in 2012 is $10.8 billion, according to an estimate from Hollywood.com, which would beat the $10.6 billion record in 2009.

The 3D “Hobbit” directed by Oscar-winning “Rings” filmmaker Peter Jackson is the first of three films based on a 1937 classic novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. Warner Bros. is aiming to build on the success of the “Rings” series, one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises with $2.9 billion in global ticket sales.

“The Hobbit” also set a record with its $15.1 million earnings from IMAX theaters worldwide, according to Warner Bros. It is also the largest opening for any film in the canon of “The Lord of the Rings.”

The “Lord of the Rings” movies debuted in theaters from 2001 to 2003. After that, production on “The Hobbit” ran into delays, leaving fans waiting a decade for another look at the fantasy story of dwarves, wizards and elves.

The opening weekend “Hobbit” sales proved interest remained high. North American (U.S. and Canadian) receipts toppled the old record for December set by Will Smith sci-fi flick “I Am Legend,” which pulled in $77.2 million when it debuted in 2007.

“The best we were hoping for was to reach or exceed the $77 million set by that movie and we did it by quite a lot. It was all good and we’re very happy about it,” said Dan Fellman, president of theatrical distribution for Warner Bros.

“You have to assume that by the time this first week is over we are going to have around $110 million in the bank before the holiday even starts,” he added.

The new film follows the epic journey of hobbit Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman, as he travels through the treacherous Middle Earth with a band of dwarves to steal treasures from the dragon, Smaug. The movie also stars Richard Armitage and Benedict Cumberbatch, while Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett and Elijah Wood reprise their “Rings” roles.

Opening-weekend audiences embraced “The Hobbit,” awarding an “A” grade in polling by survey firm CinemaScore. (Reuters)

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