Seth Meyers and Jessica Biel in "New Year's Eve." (Andrew Schwartz, Warner…)
There was little to celebrate at the box office this weekend, as poor ticket sales resulted in the slowest period of the year for moviegoing.
Despite the arrival of two new films, the star-studded romantic comedy "New Year's Eve" and the Jonah Hill raunch-fest "The Sitter," ticket sales amounted to only $77.4 million. That marked the worst weekend for the business not only in 2011 but since September 2008.
"New Year's Eve," the Garry Marshall-directed film starring nearly two dozen big-name stars, had a far softer-than-projected debut. The movie, which features such luminaries as veteran actor Robert De Niro and young star Zac Efron, collected a weak $13.7 million in the U.S. and Canada, according to an estimate from distributor Warner Bros. Heading into the weekend, even the studio had predicted the movie would have an initial modest take of around $20 million.
Meanwhile, the R-rated comedy "The Sitter" also got off to a lackluster start with only $10 million in ticket sales.
Ticket receipts are down about 4% this year compared to last, while attendance is off 5%. With a handful of high-profile, big-budget films set to open around Christmas — including "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked" and "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol" — it remains to be seen whether business will level out with or exceed sales from 2010.
"I think this does put a little more pressure on the movies that haven't opened yet," said Chris Aronson, senior vice president of distribution for 20th Century Fox, which released "The Sitter." "Any time business is down this much, you're disappointed. I think there was some really disappointing stuff in the marketplace this weekend. So am I concerned? A little. But alarmed? No."
"New Year's Eve" follows in the vein of Marshall's 2010 hit, "Valentine's Day," which also featured a handful of A-listers and was centered on a holiday. That film opened over the Feb. 14 weekend last year and collected a robust $56.3 million, gathering about $110 million by the end of its domestic run.
"We always knew we weren't going to open to the same level as 'Valentine's Day,' because this time of year can't compete with the February box office," said Dan Fellman, Warner Bros.' president of domestic distribution. "The difference is that you open on a holiday in February and your domestic box office drops each week. Here, you open pre-Christmas and your domestic box office increases. So hopefully we'll be able to expand."
Marshall's new film, produced by Warner Bros. production unit New Line Cinema for about $56 million, was slightly better liked by audiences than "Valentine's Day." "New Year's Eve" received an average grade of B+, according to market research firm CinemaScore, while "Valentine's Day" earned a B. As anticipated, the critically panned film appealed mostly to young women — 70% of the audience was female.
Those who saw "The Sitter" appeared to be disappointed, assigning it an average grade of C+. The film was relatively inexpensive to produce, with a budget of around $32 million, according to an individual close to the production.
The movie, which stars Hill as a college student who works as an inept baby-sitter, is the latest low-budget comedy from director David Gordon Green. The opening for "The Sitter" is only slightly better than the debut of "Your Highness," which started off with $9.4 million in April. That movie, a stoner comedy set in medieval times, ultimately flopped with a total of $21.6 million.
In limited release, Focus Features' "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" had an excellent launch. The film, an adaptation of author John le Carré's Cold War thriller, opened in four theaters and collected $300,737. That amounted to a per-theater average of $75,184, the third-highest of the year for a film in limited release. The movie — which has been generating early awards buzz — stars Gary Oldman and has done especially well in the United Kingdom, where it has made about $19 million.
"We're drawing not only the massive number of boomer and older audiences — which is to be expected for this film, given the topic and the providence of it — but we're also getting enormous numbers of younger folks," said James Schamus, chief executive of Focus Features.
Paramount Pictures' "Young Adult," featuring Charlize Theron as a listless teen-literature author who travels to her hometown, had a less impressive but still solid debut. The Jason Reitman-directed film grossed $320,000 in eight locations, for a per-theater average of $40,000. The well-reviewed movie will open nationwide next weekend, expanding to 1,000 theaters.