Noomi Rapace, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in "Sherlock Holmes:… (Daniel Smith, Warner Bros. )
After the soft debuts of two heavily touted sequels over the weekend, Hollywood is fearful there may not be much holiday cheer at the box office this Christmas.
"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked" got off to disappointing starts, continuing the year's downward slide for the movie business. This past weekend receipts were off 12% compared with the same period in 2010.
"Sherlock" and "Alvin" sold far fewer tickets than prerelease audience surveys had projected. Robert Downey Jr.'s detective film brought in a so-so $40 million domestically, according to an estimate from distributor Warner Bros. Heading into the weekend, the studio had estimated the film could make $55 million. And the third animated film about singing chipmunks grossed a weak $23.5 million, about $15 million less than audience polling had indicated the film would collect.
Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures expanded its Jason Reitman-directed drama "Young Adult" from eight theaters to 1,000 and it grossed a modest $3.7 million. The studio also previewed its Tom Cruise action flick "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol" on more than 400 Imax and other large-format screens. The film raked in an impressive $13 million in that limited release. At some locations, "Mission" viewers got to see a six-minute prologue to next summer's Warner Bros. Batman film, "The Dark Knight Rises," a packaging move that may have lifted grosses.
Studios are banking on strong end-of-year ticket sales to help turn around what has been a underwhelming 2011 at the box office. Ticket sales are down roughly 4% this year compared with last, while attendance is off about 5%.
But there will be more competition at the multiplex in the coming days: In addition to "Mission" expanding to theaters nationwide, moviegoers will soon have their choice of two Steven Spielberg movies – "War Horse" and "The Adventures of Tintin" – plus David Fincher's take on the Swedish thriller "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and Cameron Crowe's "We Bought a Zoo."
Of all the films being released this month, "Sherlock" was expected to do best with audiences. According to a poll conducted by MovieTickets.com, over 40% of survey participants selected the movie as the must-see film of the holiday season, compared with about 26% for "Dragon Tattoo." Those who saw "Sherlock" this weekend seemed to like it, assigning it an average grade of A-, according to market research firm CinemaScore, compared with a B grade for 2009's "Sherlock Holmes."
The first film in the series launched with a $62.3-million weekend in the U.S. and ended up collecting $524 million worldwide. Still, Warner Bros.' president of domestic distribution Dan Fellman denied that he was worried about the ultimate box-office prospects for the sequel, which cost about $125 million to produce.
"The playability of the movie is excellent, and the exit polls are much better than the first film, which had great legs," he said. "There's no reason to think this movie won't have better legs than the first."
The "Sherlock" sequel opened in six international markets and grossed $14.7 million. The movie played in countries including Sweden and Britain, where it was the No. 1 film with a debut of $5.8 million.
"Chipwrecked" — which had a budget of around $80 million — opened with only about half as many ticket sales as its two predecessors on their first weekends in theaters. 2007's "Alvin and the Chipmunks" started with $44.3 million in the U.S. and ended up pulling in $361.3 million worldwide, while 2009's "Squeakquel" debuted with $48.9 million stateside and ultimately grossed $443.1 million globally.
Fox senior vice president of distribution Chris Aronson said he believed the latest film's smaller first weekend partly reflected that many schoolchildren are not yet on vacation. Those who saw the movie this past weekend — 53% of whom were under age 25 — gave the film an average grade of B+. The second film, released two years ago, scored an A.
"The marketplace is down from last year, so, yeah, I am a little concerned," Aronson said. "But we have 41% of kids out of school on Monday, so I think this film will have a much longer run than normal."
Overseas, the film opened in 38 foreign markets, including Britain and Spain, and collected $14.5 million — about as much as "Sherlock" did, but "Chipwrecked" was in far fewer theaters.