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Box office: Soft debuts for 'Sherlock,' 'Alvin' sequels [Updated]

December 18, 2011 |  9:15 am

Sherlock Holmes A Game of Shadows was the No 1 film at the box office this weekend

There may not be much to celebrate at the box office this holiday season. Two big-budget sequels, "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked," got off to disappointing starts this weekend -- continuing the year's downward slide for the movie business.

Both "Sherlock" and "Alvin" sold far less tickets than prerelease audience surveys had projected. The latest film about the famous detective, played by Robert Downey Jr., 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 this weekend, 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. The movie was packaged in some locations with a six-minute prologue to next summer's Warner Bros. film "The Dark Knight Rises," which some in the industry said may have lifted grosses for the early screenings.

PHOTOS: Top ten films at the box office

But Dan Fellman, Warner Bros.' president of domestic distribution, rejected the notion that the Batman teaser, which played in only 44 theaters, helped “Mission” substantially.

“I’m sure people are interested in seeing the prologue,” he said. “But I don’t think you can attribute the prologue to pushing the entire gross. You can certainly attribute the prologue to pumping it up in a couple of locations, but it would be ludicrous to think the promotion of the prologue itself propelled ‘Mission.’”

The weekend's overall lackluster results, however, may be a red flag for the moviegoing period over the Christmas holiday. With a handful of expensive, highly anticipated films hitting theaters in the next two weeks -- including the fourth "Mission" installment, which expands nationwide Wednesday, and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" -- studios are banking on strong end-of-year ticket sales to help turn around what has been a underwhelming 2011 at the box office. This weekend, receipts were down 12% compared with the same period in 2010.

Of all the films being released this month, "Sherlock" was projected to do best with audiences. Indeed, those who saw the film 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."

But the first film in the series debuted to far better sales than the second, launching with $62.3 million and ended up collecting $524 million worldwide. Still, Fellman denied that he was worried about the ultimate box office prospects for the sequel, which cost the studio 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 third "Chipmunks" film -- which had a budget of around $80 million -- opened with only about half as many ticket sales as its predecessors on their first weekends in theaters. 2007's "Alvin and the Chipmunks" started off with $44.3 million and ended pulling in $361.3 million, while 2009's "Squeakquel" debuted with $48.9 million and ultimately grossed $443.1 million.

Fox senior vice president of distribution Chris Aronson said he believed the latest film's smaller first weekend reflected in part the fact that many children are not yet out for school vacation. Those who saw the movie this weekend -- 53% of whom were under the age of 25 -- gave the film an average grade of B+. The second film, released two years ago, scored an A.

Overseas, the film opened in 38 foreign markets, including Britain and Spain, and grossed $14.5 million.

[Updated 12:34 p.m., Dec. 18: The "Sherlock" sequel opened in six international markets and grossed about as much as "Chipwrecked" did overseas -- $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.

The latest "Mission: Impossible" flick launched in 36 foreign territories and raked in $68.2 million. The picture was the top choice for moviegoers in a handful of countries: Korea, Japan, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, where the film had its premiere recently.

Here are the top 10 current movies at the domestic box office, with international grosses when available, according to studio estimates and Hollywood.com:

1. "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" (Warner Bros.): Opened to $40 million. $14.7 million overseas in six foreign markets.

2. "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked" (Fox): Opened to $23.5 million. $14.5 million overseas in 38 foreign markets.

3. "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" (Paramount/Skydance): Opened to $13 million. $68.2 million overseas in 36 foreign markets. Domestic total: $13.6 million.

4. "New Year's Eve" (Warner Bros.): $7.4 million on its second weekend, down 43%. $8.9 million overseas in 42 foreign markets. Domestic total: $24.8 million. International total: $27.8 million.

5. "The Sitter" (Fox): $4.4 million on its second weekend, down 55%. Domestic total: $17.7 million.

6. "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1" (Summit): $4.3 million on its fifth weekend, down 45%. Domestic total: $266.4 million.

7. "Young Adult" (Paramount): $3.7 million on its second weekend, expanding from eight to 1,000 locations. Domestic total: $4.1 million.

8. "Hugo" (Paramount/GK Films): $3.6 million on its fourth weekend, down 40%. Domestic total: $39.1 million.

9. "Arthur Christmas" (Sony): $3.6 million on its fourth weekend, down 45%. $9.7 million overseas in 62 foreign markets. Domestic total: $38.5 million. International total: $72.8 million.

10. "The Muppets" (Disney): $3.5 million on its fourth weekend, down 51%. $600,000 overseas in nine foreign markets. Domestic total: $70.9 million. International total: $7 million.]

RELATED:

'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows' premiere

Word of Mouth: 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows'

Movie Projector: 'Sherlock,' 'Alvin' sequels kick off holiday season

--Amy Kaufman

twitter.com/AmyKinLA

Photo: Noomi Rapace, left, and Robert Downey Jr. star in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows." Credit: Warner Bros.

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