Weekend Box Office (December 16 - 18, 2011)

by Gitesh Pandya

THIS WEEKEND Three big Hollywood sequels led the North American box office pumping in some badly needed new content but that didn't stop the overall marketplace from suffering double digit losses over last year and the year before. Studios are hoping that audiences are just busy right now with holiday shopping and end-of-year activities and that their films will be well-positioned to take advantage of the extra free time people will soon have in the days ahead.

Doing what its predecessor couldn't, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows debuted at number one with $39.6M from 3,703 theaters for a solid $10,704 average, according to final studio figures. The $145M-budgeted Warner Bros. sequel debuted 36% below the $62.3M of the first Holmes which launched in second place behind Avatar on the Christmas frame two years ago over what was the largest weekend in box office history. Since audiences are historically less available in mid-December, the follow-up was never expected to open at the same heights. Shadows earned good reviews from critics and an encouraging A- grade from moviegoers polled by CinemaScore. Sales on Saturday, however, showed virtually no growth over Friday's opening day. The marketplace for adults will get crowded very quickly in the days ahead so early positive buzz will be crucial as audiences start making up their decisions for what to see over the upcoming holiday break.

Sherlock entered only six international markets day and date with domestic and grossed an estimated $14.7M from 2,113 screens including $5.8M in the United Kingdom where it ranked number one by a wide margin. Italy was close behind with $5M while Korea and Germany open later this week.

Opening in second place was Fox's kidpic threequel Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked which took in $23.2M from 3,723 locations for a $6,244 average. It was well below the debuts of its two predecessors as the first Alvin gave families something new and fresh on the same weekend of 2007 with a $44.3M debut while the second installment launched over the lucrative Christmas frame with $48.9M in 2009. Chipwrecked opened while kids were still in school and parents were busy with holiday shopping so it was expected to have a softer bow. And aside from a cruise ship storyline, Chipwrecked offered almost nothing new to the table. Last year this weekend Yogi Bear bowed to $16.4M and finished with over six times that amount after playing through the holidays.

But while the start was slower, the road ahead looks promising since most films rolling into theaters this holiday season are aimed at adults and there are no new G-rated films for kids opening for the rest of the year. Fox is hoping to capture the family crowd as more children get out of school and more parents get time off to take trips to the multiplexes for some holiday fun. PG-rated competitors will include Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin which is based on a brand that is less familiar to American kids and Matt Damon's We Bought a Zoo which is less zany for kids looking for laughs. Studio research showed that females made up 54% of the crowd and the film earned a good B+ overall grade from CinemaScore.

Chipwrecked opened overseas on 3,800 screens in 38 markets and grossed an estimated $14.5M with only a handful of the major markets debuting like the United Kingdom, Korea, and Spain.

Paramount found itself in third place with a unique limited release of its action tentpole Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol which grossed $12.8M from only 425 locations which included about 300 IMAX venues plus other large-format sites. The $145M-budgeted Tom Cruise spy flick averaged a sensational $30,083 per location helped by the higher ticket prices. Including the first shows on Thursday evening starting at 6:00pm, the total was $13.4M. It was a sensational start for an unorthodox move designed to showcase the action film with limited availability in only the biggest possible screens in hopes of sparking strong word-of-mouth that would fuel interest for the film's regular nationwide run which begins this Wednesday. Adding to the grosses was the special prologue for the Warner Bros. tentpole The Dark Knight Rises which played on selected full large-screen IMAX sites.

The tactic was needed for three reasons. First, the franchise is old having been around for over 15 years with the last installment underperforming in 2006. This helps to eventize the film adding to the excitement. Second, Cruise has suffered from serious popularity issues over the last several years with many moviegoers being repelled just by his name alone. He is not the box office draw that he used to be and this special IMAX release allows action fans to focus on the high-octane entertainment and thrills they get and shifts attention away from the star. Indeed, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol earned the best reviews of any action film this year. And third, the marketplace for grown-up fare will be super-competitive this holiday season so this release aims to get buzz going so audiences choose it first instead of other franchise offerings flooding theaters.

Overseas results were spectacular with the new Mission: Impossible ruling the international box office with an opening of an estimated $68.2M from 6,079 theaters across 36 markets with many seeing the IMAX version open a few days ahead of conventional screens. Leading the way was Korea with a stellar $11.1M, Japan with $9M, Russia with $6.1M, and India with $4M. Cruise and company have been on a worldwide tour hosting premieres and generating plenty of publicity to help drive in business. Much of Latin America will see openings this coming week including Mexico and Brazil.

With box office down once again versus last year, 3D became a much smaller part of the picture this year. Last year, four of the top five films this weekend enjoyed 3D surcharges. But this frame, the top seven films were all presented in 2D only and just one new opener for the rest of the year will be a 3D one - Tintin.

Dropping from first place was the star-packed holiday comedy New Year's Eve which fell a reasonable 44% to $7.3M giving Warner Bros. a mere $24.7M in ten days. A final gross near the $50M mark seems likely. Fellow underperforming sophomore comedy The Sitter tumbled 53% to $4.6M bumping its ten-day take to only $17.9M. Look for Fox to end its run with the Jonah Hill pic at $30M. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 followed with $4.2M, off 46%, putting Summit's total at $266.3M.

Paramount's acclaimed Martin Scorsese film Hugo, which earned three Golden Globe nominations including Best Picture and Best Director, dropped 39% to $3.7M giving the pricey train station saga $39.2M to date.

With chipmunks stealing away kids, Arthur Christmas fell by its largest amount yet falling 45% to $3.6M giving Sony only $38.5M so far. The 3D toon grossed an additional $9.7M overseas this weekend to raise the international sum to $72.8M and global tally to $111.3M. Next was Disney's The Muppets with $3.5M, down 50%, for a $71M total.

In tenth place was the Charlize Theron film Young Adult with $3.4M while expanding nationwide from eight to 986 theaters in its second weekend. Averaging a dull $3,451 per site, the $12M-budgeted Paramount release fell below the wide breaks of past end-of-year expansions for director Jason Reitman. His last film Up in the Air, also released by Paramount, fared much better with $11.3M and $5,947 average from 1,895 theaters over the Christmas holiday frame in 2009 while 2007's Juno did $10.6M and a $10,436 average on the session in between Christmas and New Year's. Both widened later in their runs in their fourth round. Total stands at $3.8M including the limited run and a wider release is planned for January 13.

With moviegoers about to get extended breaks from work and school this week, the marketplace is about to get awful crowded, awful fast. Studios are hoping to mine the riches as weekday sales will soon start to get stronger with an assortment of high-profile films hitting theaters in the coming days. Wednesday will see Sony release The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2,800 locations while Paramount debuts Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin in 3,000 houses and expands Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol into a full wide release in 3,400 total sites. On Friday, Fox opens the Matt Damon starrer We Bought a Zoo in 3,000 theaters which will be followed on Sunday by the Christmas Day bows of Spielberg's other offering War Horse from Disney in 2,300 and Summit's suspense thriller The Darkest Hour in 2,200 locations. Plus, many awards contenders will open or expand throughout the next two weeks.

Opening to good but not stellar results in platform release was the Sony Classics release Carnage with $79,795 from five houses for a $15,959 average. Based on the hit play about two sets of parents dealing with trouble between their kids, the Roman Polanski film starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, and Christoph Waltz earned good reviews but has not been a major player during awards season outside of its recent double Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress - Comedy or Musical for Foster and Winslet.

Other indie films continued to expand. The Focus thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy widened from four to 16 theaters and grossed $456,777 for a strong $28,549 average and $879,548 cume. The Artist, which led all films with six Globe nods, expanded slightly from 16 to 17 sites and collected $287,367 with a $16,904 average. The Weinstein Co. has taken in $1.3M so far.

David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method took in $150,855 from 17 playdates for a $8,874 average while the Michael Fassbender drama Shame averaged $6,025 with $307,254 from 51 locations. Totals stand at $719,857 and $1.2M, respectively.

The top ten films grossed $106M which was down 15% from last year when TRON: Legacy opened in the top spot with $44M; and down 16% from 2009 when Avatar debuted at number one with $77M.

Compared to projections, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked both opened below my respective forecasts of $52M and $32M while Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol debuted above my $9M prediction.

Get earlier box office updates and analysis by following BoxOfficeGuru.com on Twitter.

Check the NEW chart for the Golden Globe Nominations and Grosses and the UPDATED chart for the Top December Openings.

Watch the NEW trailer for Men in Black 3. For NEW reviews of Sherlock Holmes and Mission: Impossible visit The Chief Report.

Be sure to check back on Thursday for a complete summary, including projections, for next weekend when The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Adventures of Tintin, We Bought a Zoo, War Horse, and The Darkest Hour all debut.

Marketplace - Shop for DVDs, electronics, books, and posters at discounted prices:

# Title Dec 16 - 18 Dec 9 - 11 % Chg. Theaters Weeks AVG Cumulative Distributor
1 Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows $ 39,637,079 3,703 1 $ 10,704 $ 39,637,079 Warner Bros.
2 Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked 23,244,744 3,723 1 6,244 23,244,744 Fox
3 Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (lg scrn) 12,785,204 425 1 30,083 13,385,204 Paramount
4 New Year's Eve 7,310,413 13,019,180 -43.8 3,505 2 2,086 24,716,167 Warner Bros.
5 The Sitter 4,608,681 9,851,435 -53.2 2,752 2 1,675 17,929,987 Fox
6 The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Pt. 1 4,197,893 7,819,402 -46.3 2,958 5 1,419 266,327,974 Summit
7 Hugo 3,707,848 6,050,309 -38.7 2,532 4 1,464 39,155,709 Paramount
8 Arthur Christmas 3,554,286 6,510,486 -45.4 2,929 4 1,213 38,501,631 Sony
9 The Muppets 3,520,926 6,978,870 -49.5 2,808 4 1,254 70,994,571 Disney
10 Young Adult 3,403,159 310,263 986 2 3,451 3,843,083 Paramount
11 The Descendants 3,268,357 4,380,138 -25.4 878 5 3,723 28,645,909 Fox Searchlight
12 Jack and Jill 1,228,843 3,085,098 -60.2 1,910 6 643 70,506,629 Sony
13 Happy Feet Two 1,077,329 3,690,304 -70.8 1,780 5 605 58,909,873 Warner Bros.
14 Tower Heist 901,025 2,358,655 -61.8 1,315 7 685 75,788,740 Universal
15 Immortals 851,371 2,461,227 -65.4 1,216 6 700 81,889,376 Relativity
16 My Week With Marilyn 591,385 780,822 -24.3 244 4 2,424 6,087,130 Weinstein Co.
17 Puss in Boots 465,209 1,628,199 -71.4 757 8 615 142,775,402 Paramount
18 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy 456,777 310,562 47.1 16 2 28,549 879,548 Focus
19 J. Edgar 386,494 1,188,413 -67.5 703 6 550 35,718,897 Warner Bros.
20 Shame 307,254 283,415 8.4 51 3 6,025 1,231,295 Fox Searchlight
Top 5 $ 87,586,121 $ 44,179,373 98.3
Top 10 105,970,233 63,846,449 66.0
Top 20 115,504,277 71,823,908 60.8
Top 20 vs. 2010 115,504,277 132,409,784 -12.8

Last Updated: December 19, 2011 at 5:15PM ET

Watch Gitesh Pandya's weekly box office preview on CNN International airing live each Thursday at 7:40pm ET.