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"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" was number one at the North American box office this weekend. It made close to $85 million, less than expected but still a pretty huge take.

But as NPR's Sami Yenigun reports, being number one the first week out does not guarantee that a movie is going to do well in the long run.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY")

IAN MCKELLEN: (as Gandalf) I'm looking for someone to share in an adventure.

SAMI YENIGUN, BYLINE: You got your wish, Gandalf. This weekend, millions of Americans trekked across Middle Earth with Bilbo Baggins.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY")

YENIGUN: "The Hobbit" joins other number ones, like "Underworld Awakening," "Paranormal Activity 4," and "Batman."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE DARK KNIGHT RISES")

MATTHEW MODINE: (as Officer Foley) But he's a hero.

BRETT CULLEN: (as Congressman) A war hero. This is peacetime.

YENIGUN: Here's the thing. The weekend battle at the box office doesn't necessarily decide the war in Hollywood. Edward Jay Epstein is author of "The Hollywood Economist." He says don't believe the hype.

EDWARD JAY EPSTEIN: By giving a number, the number one box office movie, it creates the illusion that there is news about Hollywood.

YENIGUN: All right, let's take a look at why number one on opening weekend means less than it seems. First reason: the race is rigged.

EPSTEIN: It's already predetermined because of the size of the marketing campaign, because it has the basic requisites of Hollywood: a happy ending, action, a minimum of dialogue, so that they could show it in Asia.

YENIGUN: And foreign markets are key. Another reason being top at the box office isn't all it's cracked up to be is that overseas ticket sales are not taken into account.

The third reason - winning the weekend means less than you think - is that a film can open way out of the top 10 and still turn a profit. Take Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," for example. It was number 16 on opening weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MOONRISE KINGDOM")

FRANCES MCDORMAN: (as Laura Bishop) Does is concern you that your daughter has just run away from home?

BILL MURRAY: (as Walt Bishop) That's a loaded question.

YENIGUN: There's no need for panic. The movie took in a steady amount of cash over the summer. And here is reason number four winning opening weekend isn't news. Only a fraction of a film's revenue comes from opening weekend. Studios hope they'll be selling DVDs and lunchboxes for years to come. In fact, you can be number one and never make it out of the red.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NEW YEAR'S EVE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) I want to go to Times Square tonight to watch the ball drop.

YENIGUN: Remember that movie "New Year's Eve"? No? Well, it opened number one around this time last year and took a nosedive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NEW YEAR'S EVE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as character) Ouch.

YENIGUN: So if the number one movie isn't newsworthy, or a sure money maker, what is a number one blockbuster?

USC's professor of critical studies, Todd Boyd, says it's a moment for the masses to share.

TODD BOYD: They're like the circus, some huge event that becomes, I think, for many people an option for them to say that I participated in something that a lot of other people also participated in. And this allows them to be defined as part of a group.

YENIGUN: Sixteen-year-old Mona Sharaf is part of a group that's been waiting hours outside of the Uptown Theater in D.C. She's here to see the first showing of "The Hobbit" at midnight.

MONA SHARAF: It's kind of the experience. People are dressed up. There's a whole room of people that are just as excited as you are. So it's kind of like cool energy.

YENIGUN: The scale of a movie like "The Hobbit," the excitement it brings, only happens a few weekends a year, says Edward J. Epstein.

EPSTEIN: You have six studios, so they each picked weekends they want. And if there's a conflict, they sort it out one way or another.

YENIGUN: This past weekend, "The Hobbit" opened in over 4,000 theaters nationwide. And it shows no signs of slowing down. "The Hobbit" could sit at number one next weekend too.

Sami Yenigun, NPR News.

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