Desolation of Smaug news round up

Hobbit gives NZ director Peter Jackson a Boxing Day full house
The Sydney Morning Herald

Peter Jackson has confirmed his position as Lord of the Ringing Tills with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug recording the second-highest Boxing Day opening in Australian history.

The only film to have topped the $5.465 million the second film in his Hobbit trilogy racked up at the Australian box office on Thursday is the first part, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which opened with $5.9 million last year.

Jackson holds the top five places on the Boxing Day chart, with his three Lord of the Rings films filling out the next three positions.

Australian fans were, however, made to wait for their chance to see the New Zealander's latest J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation. But they're used to that: his films are typically released here close to a fortnight after they hit cinemas in most other territories of the world, in order to capitalise on the biggest day on the Australian film calendar.

Jackson has come a long way since his first feature, the ultra-low-budget sci-fi horror comedy Bad Taste. Shot on weekends over four years, with Jackson playing a couple of characters and his close mates the rest, the film cost an estimated $NZ25,000 to shoot (a further $NZ235,000 was stumped up by the New Zealand Film Commission to get it cinema-ready).

By contrast, The Hobbit trilogy is estimated to have so far cost about $560 million to make (post-production on the final instalment, The Hobbit: There and Back, is ongoing).

In one respect, though, nothing has changed. Bad Taste was released in New Zealand on December 11, 1987, while The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was released there on December 12.

In Australia, all but one of Jackson's films since the first Lord of the Rings have opened on Boxing Day (King Kong opened on December 14, 2005). Few countries have to wait longer. But the ends clearly justify the means.

The record haul for the first part of The Hobbit trilogy last year helped create a single-day box office record in Australia of $10.8 million (Les Miserables, Wreck It Ralph, Parental Guidance and Skyfall all did their bit to get it there). That figure also included films that were screening before Boxing Day, but the appetite for something new was borne out by the fact that the seven films released on that day accounted for $9.7 million of that total.

The result this year fell just short of that, with a total haul of $10 million. Opening on Boxing Day isn't a guarantee of success for any one film, but having fresh content on the day is crucial to the cinema business overall. Movies that open on Boxing Day have, since 2000, accounted for an average 7.7 per cent of the annual box office in Australia - a huge haul when you consider that they account for between 1 and 2 per cent of all films released in a year.

New Hobbit a show stopper

Charting a course through Middle-earth can be nearly as taxing as surviving an international media tour for an end-of-year blockbuster. Peter Jackson knows this better than anyone. His film journeys through the vast realms of JRR Tolkien's writings are familiar terrain.

His salt-and-pepper curls fell at slightly unruly angles and his white dress shirt looked more comfortably lived in than freshly pressed as he posed on a giant chair flown in from New Zealand from the set of his latest film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Still, the director was in good humour, no doubt elevated by the terrific reviews that Smaug has been receiving, many of which compare its jovial spirit to the high-water mark of Jackson's career, his epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

"Quite a few people are saying that," said Jackson, 52, sipping tea between photo shoots at a Beverly Hills hotel. "We are consciously trying to deepen the characterisations and conflicts without straying too far from Tolkien."

Yet last year, when The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opened, many fans struggled to embrace the film, even as it raked in $US1 billion worldwide at the box office.

Detractors seemed saddened that the soaring sense of adventure and heart that had defined the Rings films had gone missing, replaced by flatulent trolls, moments of slapstick humour and sluggish pacing. [there's nothing wrong with that!]

Only the sequence featuring the creature Gollum was praised as matching Jackson's earlier, Oscar-winning achievements. [No you forgot to mention the brilliant addition of hot dwarves]

By contrast, Smaug is brimming with action, including a show- stopping fight sequence filmed along New Zealand's Pelorus River. In its grand scope and serious tone, it feels far more akin to Jackson's original trilogy than its immediate predecessor.

The story centres on the middle portion of Tolkien's landmark 1937 youth novel, but Jackson and his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have expanded the narrative to include new characters and moments referenced in the appendixes of The Lord of the Rings.

"That was one of the decisions we made at the very beginning," Jackson said. "Do we take a children's book, a very simplistic children's book, and faithfully adapt it? Or do we make a film that will live alongside the other three movies that we made? We are the same storytellers, Philippa, Fran and I, we're the same people working on it. We're trying to be faithful to the style and the tone."

That Jackson returned to another Tolkien film at all was somewhat unexpected. After the Rings trilogy, he directed a remake of King Kong and The Lovely Bones, an adaptation of Alice Sebold's bestseller, though neither caught fire in the same way his Middle-earth movies had.

He'd been set to produce The Hobbit as a two-parter helmed by Guillermo del Toro, but once Del Toro stepped down in 2010, it wasn't long before Jackson assumed the reins, expanding the project to three movies. (The third, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, is set for release December, 2014.)

In this second portion of the saga, Martin Freeman's good- natured Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, continues on his quest to help the [Majestic] dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and company reclaim the treasure of their lost homeland Erebor, which has been usurped by the evil dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ian McKellen's wizard Gandalf has more of a solo role to play, ferreting out a great, ancient evil that is settling over the land.

Bilbo and Thorin's travels take them to the forest of Mirkwood, where they encounter not only giant, woodland spiders but also a race of Sylvan elves that includes Orlando Bloom's regal Legolas (a featured member of the Rings ensemble) and Evangeline Lilly's warrior Tauriel. She is the first character wholly invented for a Tolkien film by Jackson, Walsh and Boyens (Del Toro also is credited as a screenwriter on Smaug).

"For some reason that I don't quite understand, a lot of women love these stories more than other types of fantasy," Jackson said. "We just felt it was a bit male-heavy and we could do something about it."

[I'm sorry, what is it you don't understand Peter?]

There are other new players, including Luke Evans' human Bard the Bowman, who resides in the enclave of Lake-town, which sits in the shadow of the Lonely Mountain near the deserted area known as the Desolation of Smaug.

Narratively, Jackson said he felt greater freedom with this instalment than with Unexpected Journey or the upcoming There and Back Again. He neither had to establish the story and introduce the characters nor deliver "an exciting climax" for the trilogy.

But there was dragon anxiety. He acknowledged that he felt some apprehension over finally bringing Tolkien's great red-golden beast to the screen. "You keep hearing all this expectation," Jackson said. "'I want to see Smaug, I want to see Smaug.' I hadn't seen Smaug up until a few months ago, really, not in his current form.

"Those things," he added with a laugh, "are a bit of a pressure."

Jackson said that for the scenes with the serpent - and the rest of the film as well - he, Walsh and Boyens constantly revised the script, trying to refine the story even as shooting was under way. Jackson went so far as to bring some of the actors back to Wellington for 12 weeks last summer to film extra sequences for the final two movies, including the flashback scene between McKellen and Armitage that opens The Desolation of Smaug.

"We literally don't stop writing," Jackson said. "Just because you've cast the film, just because you've started shooting, just because you've got actors asking 'What exactly are we shooting tomorrow?' - none of that is a reason not to write, not to try to improve."

Evans (Immortals, Fast & Furious 6) said he flew to New Zealand for his Bard the Bowman part without having read a script.

"I had to trust the word of Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson that I hadn't just signed away 18 months of my life for a little flash-in-the-pan role," the Welsh actor said. "As soon as I got off the plane, the script was there. I got to read it and wiped my brow at the end. I was very pleased and relieved."

Movie critics have embraced The Desolation of Smaug and say it is Jackson's most acclaimed offering since 2003's Return of the King, which claimed 11 Oscars.

No matter how the movie ultimately fares, Jackson said he was pleased that his films had helped bring Tolkien's magic to new generations of readers.

Smaug tops US Christmas takings

The second movie in The Hobbit trilogy was the biggest box-office hit in US cinemas over Christmas, although takings are down on the first film.

Sir Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was the top-grossing film in the US on Christmas Day, heading off five new releases including Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street.

After 13 days in US cinemas, Smaug earned $US9.32 million ($A10.51 million) on the day - 17 per cent less than its Hobbit predecessor An Unexpected Journey on Christmas Day last year, according to Box Office Mojo website.

It estimates that Smaug grossed more than $US149 million in the US up to and including Christmas Day and more than $US276 million in the rest of the world as of last Saturday.

But the worldwide takings for most countries are recorded only up to December 15, after Smaug had opened as No.1 at the weekend box office in many countries including Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, South Africa, Spain, Thailand, South Korea and the UK, as well as its Middle-earth home in New Zealand.

The film opened in Australia on Boxing Day, making $A5.46 million in ticket sales in 629 cinemas, distributor Roadshow films says. That was also less than An Unexpected Journey, which took $A5.92 million when it opened in Australia on Boxing Day 2012.

According to, An Unexpected Journey is the 17th highest-grossing film, with $US1.02 billion sales.

Jackson's biggest commercial success is his 2003 film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which made $US1.13 billion and is the sixth highest-grossing film of all time.

Avatar, whose sequels will be made in New Zealand, is the biggest cinematic money-spinner, with $US2.8 billion earnings in 2009, followed by Titanic's $US2.2 billion in 1997. Both films were directed by James Cameron, who now owns several farms in Wairarapa.