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Box Office: 'Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' Earns $8.8 Million Thursday Night

Peter Jackson's second film in his "Lord of the Rings" prequel trilogy also is opening in 49 territories internationally.

A dragon, 13 dwarfs, some elves, a wizard and a determined hobbit named Bilbo began their journey back to the big screen on Thursday night as The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug bellowed into theaters with $8.8 million in midnight runs.

The second film in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings prequel trilogy stars Martin Freeman as hobbit Bilbo Baggins, who travels with a group of dwarfs to face off against the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace and Luke Evans co-star.

PHOTOS: 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' Premiere Draws Peter Jackson, Orlando Bloom

The first film in the trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, earned $13 million from midnight screenings when it opened exactly one year ago. It went on to gross $84.6 million in its U.S. debut, and has to date earned $1 billion worldwide.

Box-office observers expect the new film, a New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Bros. production, to open in the $75 million to $80 million range domestically. The 3D film, rated PG-13, is opening in more than 3,900 theaters in the U.S.

The adventure film, based on J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 fantasy novel, also is opening in 49 territories abroad this weekend, including eight of the top 12 markets (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the U.K., Mexico, Brazil and Korea).

STORY: Inside 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' Premiere: Middle Earth Comes to Hollywood

Numbers from several international markets have already begun trickling in, with Smaug becoming the biggest opening of the year in many countries. Warner Bros. reports that Smaug earned $2.8 million on 909 screens in France on Wednesday. (That's an 8 percent increase from An Unexpected Journey.)

The international rollout for Smaug will be at a slightly slower pace than it was for An Unexpected Journey (which earned $139 million in its international debut). Warner Bros. has chosen to push its release in Japan to late February and shifted a few Latin American markets one week closer to the Christmas holiday.

Email: Rebecca.Ford@THR.com
Twitter: @Beccamford