'Smaug' fires up 'Hobbit' sequel with $8.8M on Thursday

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[December 14, 2013] LOS ANGELES (Reuters)  The second installment of "The Hobbit" franchise fired up the box office during midnight showings on Thursday with U.S. ticket sales of $8.8 million, movie studio Warner Bros. said on Friday.

Industry experts expect "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," opening widely at U.S. theaters on Friday, to ring up $80 million in its first weekend at the North American box office. Out of the $8.8 million made from midnight showings, $1.25 million came from IMAX screenings of the film in 3D.

Made for a $250 million budget, the film is likely to be one of the year's highest-grossing films, with $1 billion expected in worldwide ticket sales.

"Desolation of Smaug," the second in director Peter Jackson's cinematic trilogy based on author J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy novel "The Hobbit," follows hobbit Bilbo Baggins as he continues on his treacherous quest with 13 dwarves to the Lonely Mountain, guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, Smaug.

The first installment, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," rung up more than $300 million at the U.S. box office after its release in December 2012, and more than $1 billion worldwide. The final film, "The Hobbit: There and Back Again," is due in theaters in December 2014.

(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; editing by Patricia Reaney and Vicki Allen)

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