Box-Office Preview: 'Anchorman 2,' 'Hobbit' Lead Christmas Crunch

3:30 PM PST 12/19/2013 by Pamela McClintock

UPDATED: "American Hustle," "Saving Mr. Banks" and "Walking With Dinosaurs" also open everywhere Friday, followed on Christmas Day by five additional wide releases and a slew of awards contenders debuting in select theaters.

Will Ferrell comedy Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and holdover The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug could find themselves in a close contest for the North American box-office crown as the holidays get underway in earnest this weekend.

The final two weeks of the year are a bonanza for moviegoing (as one studio distributor puts it, "Every day is a Saturday"). Films may not sport huge openings, but can enjoy unusually strong multiples. As in other years, this year brings a potpourri of commercial titles and award contenders.

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On the commercial side of the aisle, Anchorman 2, opening Wednesday, is hoping to earn $30 million for the three-day weekend, while Peter Jackson's Desolation of Smaug is tipped to gross roughly the same, if not slightly more.

Last weekend, Desolation of Smaug easily topped the domestic box-office chart with a strong $73.6 million for Warner Bros., New Line and MGM. However, it continues to pace behind last year's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Through Wednesday, the sequel's domestic total was $91 million (Unexpected Journey's total after the same number of days in release was $106.5 million).

On Wednesday, Anchorman 2 beat Desolation of Smaug, taking in $8.1 million on its first day for a projected five-day debut in the $40 million to $45 million range. Smaug, however, will pick up again as the weekend unfolds.

Anchorman 2, made for $50 million and receiving a B CinemaScore, sees the return of Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner and Christina Applegate while adding newcomers James Marsden, Harrison Ford and Kristen Wiig. It follows the news team as they make the transition from San Diego to New York. Adam McKay returns to direct from a script he co-wrote with Ferrell.

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Elsewhere, awards contenders American Hustle and Saving Mr. Banks both expand nationwide Friday after opening last weekend in New York and Los Angeles, while Fox's family entry Walking With Dinosaurs also launches.

Sony's American Hustle, from director David O. Russell, cost $40 million to make. is tipped to gross $15 million to $19 million. The period pic, recounting the Abscam political scandal of the late 1970s and early 1980s, boasts a strong ensemble cast led by Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. Earlier this month, American Hustle picked up seven Golden Globe nominations, tying with Fox Searchlight's 12 Years a Slave for the most nods. The film, costing $40 million to make, posted a screen average of $123,409 last weekend, one of the top numbers of the year.

Saving Mr. Banks, starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, is projected to take in $11.5 million to north of $13 million, potentially putting it in a close race with 3D adventure Walking With Dinosaurs. The film, receiving strong reviews, cost $35 million to produce.

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Walking With Dinosaurs, adapted from the BBC miniseries, should benefit from being the only new family entry of the Christmas season. The $80 million film, receiving dismal reviews, has no human cast and tells the story of Patchi, an underdog dinosaur who transforms into a hero (Justin Long and John Leguizamo lead the voice cast). Walking With Dinosaurs, produced by BBC and Evergreen, was co-financed by Reliance, IM Global and Fox. Fox insiders are anticipating a three-day opening in the $10 million to $12 million range.

New offerings at the specialty box office include Warner Bros.' critically acclaimed Her, from Spike Jonze, while Inside Llewyn Davis expands.

The marquee will become even more crowded on Christmas Day, when five new wide releases open -- Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, 47 Ronin, Grudge Match and Justin Bieber concert pic Believe. There's also a flurry of activity at the specialty box office as distributors rush to debut their final award contenders. Limited openings include August: Osage County, The Invisible Woman, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Lone Survivor.

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