The midnight screenings of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug generated roughly $8.8 million last night--that's more than $4 million less than The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey made at similar screenings last year.
That tracks with what expectations analysts already had for the film--Box Office Mojo wrote that while the first movie made around $80 million in its opening weekend, the second is tracking between $70 and $75 million.
Conventional wisdom in today's movie market is that sequels do better because they're given the opportunity to build on the success of the film that came immediately before them, but movies like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse proved that sometimes, the penultimate chapter just doesn't live up to the hype. In both cases, those movies took a steep step down from their predecessors on opening weekend but went on to gross respectable numbers, and then the next chapter in the series finished strong.
That's an inexact comparison, of course, since Harry Potter and Twilight both split up their finales but it was the second-to-last movie and third-to-last movie respectively that took a hit, but in neither case was it considered a deadly blow for the franchise's box office credentials. And in both cases, as with The Hobbit, the decision to split the final movie into two was made somewhat belatedly and not without controversy, especially among the hardcore fans. This is more true with Twilight, where the announcement was made very late in the game, similar to The Hobbit (they announced it officially at Comic Con 2012, less than 18 months before today's release).
There's also the matter of competition--and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey frankly didn't have all that much of it. The film was up against the waning weeks of both Lincoln and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 but no massive, new release. The Hunger Games:Catching Fire, though, is still going strong and Frozen may still generate $20 million and give the holiday new release Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas a run for second place. There's a lot to do at the movies this weekend, and The Hobbit just doesn't have the kind of unquestioned dominance its predecessor did.