The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opened this weekend with an estimated $73.7 million, and if there were ever a time when a movie making that much money in one weekend could be seen as a hobbit-size disappointment, it is, perhaps, today.
As the second film in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug grossed about $11 million less than the debut weekend of its predecessor, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. That's not the box office trajectory a studio wants to see when making an epic cinematic trilogy — and the blame could be placed on the films' running times.
Jackson's last series of movies set in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, by contrast, went in the opposite direction at the box office: The second Lord of the Rings film pulled in almost $15 million more in its opening weekend than the first movie did. But while the Rings movies are based on Tolkien's massive trilogy of books, which seemed to justify their roughly three-hour running times with audiences, the Hobbit trilogy is based on a single book. It's no surprise one of the most common complaints about An Unexpected Journey was that it simply felt too bloody long for such a slender story, and there were still two more movies to go.
While average movie running times have been growing longer over the past several decades, it is still exceedingly rare for major Hollywood studios to release a film that runs over 160 minutes (2 hours and 40 minutes). Two-hour-and-30-minute movies are a bit more common, but passing that 160-minute threshold is apparently a Rubicon that most filmmakers and studios do not cross. The major reason is simple math: A movie that long is often shown in theaters one or two times fewer a day than shorter films, which can translate into tens of millions of dollars of lost revenue over time.
To wit, of the top 400 domestic box office debuts of all time, only 15 are for movies that run 160 minutes or longer — and Peter Jackson has directed a whopping six of them.
15. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
14. American Gangster (2007)
13. Troy (2004)
12. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
11. King Kong (2005)
10. Watchmen (2009)
9. Pearl Harbor (2001)
8. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
7. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
6. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
5. Avatar (2009)
4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
3. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
2. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)
1. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Here are the estimated top 10 box office figures for Friday to Sunday, courtesy of Box Office Mojo:
1. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug* — $73.7 million
2. Frozen — $22.2 million
3. Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas* — $16 million
4. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire — $13.2 million
5. Thor: The Dark World — $2.7 million
6. Out of the Furnace — $2.3 million
7. Delivery Man — $1.9 million
8. Philomena — $1.8 million
9. The Book Thief — $1.7 million
10. Homefront — $1.6 million