By Lisa Richwine
(Reuters) - The first of three "Hobbit" movies kicked off its box office quest with an estimated $13 million in ticket sales from showings at U.S. and Canadian theaters just after midnight on Friday, a record for a December debut.
The performance topped the $8 million from midnight sales for December 2003 film "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a highly anticipated prequel to the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
"The Hobbit" also rung up sales of $27.3 million in 42 international markets since its overseas debut on Wednesday, distributor Warner Bros. said. Combined with the early North American (U.S. and Canadian) sales, the global total stands at an estimated $40.3 million.
The new 3D film follows the epic journey of hobbit Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman, as he travels with a band of dwarves to steal treasures from the dragon Smaug. The film is directed by Oscar-winning "Lord of the Rings" filmmaker Peter Jackson and features many of the stars of the earlier films. All of the movies are based on classic novels by J.R.R. Tolkien.
"The Hobbit" likely will finish the weekend with domestic sales of $75 million or more from Friday through Sunday, predicts Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office division of Hollywood.com.
Some analysts have projected three-day domestic sales may top $100 million, though no movie has opened that big in December, a time when children are in school and families are busy with holiday activities. The North American record for the month of December belongs to Will Smith sci-fi film "I Am Legend," which debuted with $77.2 million in 2007.
The "Lord of the Rings" movies, which debuted from 2001 to 2003, brought in $2.9 billion at global box offices.
Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc, distributed "The Hobbit." Warner Bros.' New Line Cinema and MGM produced the film.
(Reporting By Lisa Richwine; Editing by Alden Bentley)