By harnessing the prowess of J.R.R. Tolkien's most famous novel, Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) Warner Bros. easily managed to come out on top at this weekend's box office.
Time Warner's big-budget sequel in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug earned a strong $73.7 million with its domestic weekend debut. That was good enough to secure its spot as the fourth-highest ever December launch, trailing only $3.3 million behind 2009's Avatar and $1 million ahead of 2003's The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. With this in mind, it's sure hard to criticize Smaug for not breaking its 2012 predecessor's $84.6 million December weekend record.
What's more, Smaug has already earned a massive $131.2 million overseas, portending another massive worldwide gross considering international movie-goers were responsible for more than 70% of the first Hobbit film's incredible $1 billion total.
However, while many critics praised Smaug as a worthy successor -- thanks in part to its more action-centric plot -- polled audiences were slightly harder on the sequel, giving it a still-respectable 'A-' CinemaScore. By way of comparison, that's in line with the score enjoyed by Disney (NYSE:DIS) Marvel's Thor: The Dark World last month, but trails the rare 'A' scores earned by the first Hobbit, as well as Lionsgate's (NYSE:LGF) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
Meanwhile, let's not forget Disney's Frozen garnered an almost impossible 'A+' CinemaScore. That could help explain why the animated epic continued to hold up particularly well in its third domestic weekend, falling just 29.8% from the same week-ago period to roughly $22.2 million. All told, Frozen has grossed nearly $266 million worldwide so far, easily outpacing its lofty $150 million production budget.
Next, Lionsgate's Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas took third this weekend with its estimated $16 million domestic-only debut. While that might sound decent for a film that only cost Lionsgate around $25 million to produce, it's by far the weakest Madea film launch to date. By contrast, each of Perry's previous Madea films earned at least $25 million in their own respective weekend openings.
But Madea Christmas did manage to outrun the estimated $13.15 million gross earned by Lionsgate's fourth-weekend holdover, Catching Fire, which brings the book-based sequel's worldwide total to a massive $729.9 million. That's also well ahead of the $691.2 million earned by the first Hunger Games movie last spring -- a performance undoubtedly owed to Catching Fire's significantly larger international following, which is responsible for over half its total ticket sales compared to just 41% last year.
Finally, Thor: The Dark World continued to lose steam going into its sixth weekend, earning just $2.7 million stateside and just edging out the $2.3 million earned by Relativity Media's second-week action thriller, Out of the Furnace. That said, Thor: The Dark World has still proven another massive success for Disney given its huge $619.9 million worldwide gross so far. On the other hand, with its total still under $10 million, Out of the Furnace looks like it'll have trouble recouping Relativity Media's comparably tiny $22 million budget.
Coming up next
Next weekend should also prove more eventful with a number of solid contenders either expanding or making their debut.
Viacom's (NASDAQ:VIAB) Paramount, for one, will look to further build its comedy empire with its Wednesday release of Anchorman: The Legend Continues. Viacom enjoyed reasonable success with the first Anchorman back in 2004, earning a $90.6 million worldwide gross on a paltry $26 million budget. Viacom has upped the ante this time, however, dedicating an estimated $50 million to bring the widely anticipated sequel to 3,400 screens.
News Corp's (NASDAQ:NWS) 20th Century Fox is also hoping to strike it big with the Friday release of its promising, CGI-powered Walking With Dinosaurs, which boasts an estimated $80 million production budget.
In addition, both Sony Pictures and Disney are looking forward to expanding their respective releases of American Hustle and Saving Mr. Banks, both of which held limited viewings last week and will be rolling out to more than 2,200 screens.
Fool contributor Steve Symington has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.