The biggest mystery facing Sherlock Holmes: how come he was so ho-hum at the box office this weekend? 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows' was the weekend's top movie, with an estimated $40 million opening, but its performance was underwhelming considering it was expected to score as much as $60 million. Similarly, 'Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked' disappointed despite an estimated $23.5 million, second-place debut, since it was expected to gross well over $30 million. On the other hand, the unusual, IMAX-exclusive opening of 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol' outperformed modest expectations and premiered with an estimated $13 million on just 425 screens, good enough for third place.
Pundits predicted that the 'Sherlock Holmes' sequel would open in the ballpark of the original, which debuted with $62.3 million two years ago. But that opened on Christmas weekend, while this one opened earlier and against stiffer competition. Reviews have been just so-so, though that shouldn't really matter with this franchise. Also, there's the notion that audiences in recent months have been suffering from sequel fatigue, especially if the sequel brings nothing new to the table, though this one does introduce Holmes' nemesis, Professor Moriarty.
Sequel fatigue also seemed to affect the third 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' movie, which had been predicted to open between $30 and $38 million. The reviews were mostly scathing, but this franchise is also review-proof. Plus, there was no other kiddie competition this weekend. And the rude humor of the first two PG-rated installments was toned down to earn a G rating this time, so that should have drawn even more tykes. So it comes back to sequelitis, which has hit family movies especially hard this year, from 'Happy Feet Two,' to such seemingly unassailable titles as 'Cars 2' and 'Kung Fu Panda 2.'
Yet here's 'Mission: Impossible,' offering up its fourth installment, with a long-in-the-tooth star who's not the domestic box office draw he used to be, and it scores a stunning $30,588 per venue. (Compare that to $10,807 for 'Sherlock Holmes' and $6,312 for 'Chipwrecked.') What's the aging series' secret weapon? No, it wasn't Tom Cruise, nor the six-minute prologue for the even more eagerly-awated Bat-sequel 'The Dark Knight Rises' that accompanied 'Ghost Protocol' on just about 10 percent of its screens; it was the IMAX surcharge, which runs as high as $19 per ticket in Manhattan. Considering that predictions were in the $9 million range, the $13 million opening bodes very well for when the film expands into wide release over the next few weeks. Internationally, 'Ghost Protocol' grabbed almost $70 million.
Rounding out the top five were last week's champ, 'New Year's Eve,' which fell 43 percent (about what was expected) to take in an estimated $7.4 million, and 'The Sitter,' which had an even steeper second-week drop of 55 percent, to an estimated $4.4 million. In 10 days, 'New Year's Eve' has earned $24.8 million, while 'The Sitter' has earned $17.7 million over the same period.
Some pundits expected Charlize Theron's'Young Adult' to crack the top five, as it expanded onto nearly 1,000 screens (after opening on just eight last weekend), with a possible take of $5 to $6 million. But it, too, underwhelmed, taking in just $3.7 million, according to estimates, finishing at No. 7. Also on the limited-release front, Oscar-hopeful 'Carnage' opened on just five screens but pulled an estimated $17,140 on each of them, for a total of $85,700.
In all, box office has been dismal this month, down a full 39 percent from the same period last December. Barring some unexpectedly huge blockbuster numbers for such upcoming wide releases as 'The Adventures of Tintin' and 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,' it seems unlikely that 2011's total box office will close the gap of more than 3 percent (about $330 million) between this year's earnings and last year's.
The full top 10:
1. 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,' $40.0 million (3,703 screens), new release
2. 'Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked,' $23.5 million (3,723), new release
3. 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol,' $13.0 million (425), new release
4. 'New Year's Eve,' $13.7 million (3,505), $24.8 million total
5. 'The Sitter,' $4.4 million (2,752), $17.7 million
6. 'The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1,' $4.3 million (2,958), $266.4 million
7. 'Young Adult,' $3.65 million (986), $4.1 million
8. 'Hugo,' $3.63 million (2,532) $39.1 million
9. 'Arthur Christmas,' $3.60 million (2,929), $38.5 million
10. 'The Muppets,' $3.5 million (2,808), $70.9 million
[Photos: Warner Bros. ('Sherlock Holmes'), 20th Century Fox ('Chipwrecked'), Paramount ('Mission: Impossible'), Sony Pictures Classics ('Carnage')]
Follow Moviefone on Twitter
Like Moviefone on Facebook
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman