Nobody expected "Pixels," Adam Sandler's homage to Pac-Man and other vintage video games, to gobble up dollars the way Sandler's movies used to. Yet "Pixels" still disappointed, even by Sandler's declining standards.

Predictions were in the range of $25 to $35 million for the debut of the action comedy. At least it was supposed to premiere in first place. But the movie may not even have reached those low bars. It opened this weekend with an estimated $24.0 million, putting it about $800,000 behind the week-old "Ant-Man." Those numbers may change by the time final figures are released on Monday, and "Pixels" could come out on top by the time all the quarters are spent. But it would still be one of the lowest opening weekends of Sandler's career.

It would also be the latest in a downward trend that's marked the comedian's box office for at least four years. Aside from his "Grown Ups" movies and his animated "Hotel Transylvania," Sandler hasn't made a film that grossed more than $75 million in North America since "Just Go With It" in early 2011. (That didn't bode well for "Pixels," which cost a reported $88 million to make.)

So what went wrong over the weekend? By most accounts, the movie isn't very good, earning dismal reviews from critics and a B grade CinemaScore. The video game nostalgia element worked in Disney's "Wreck-It Ralph," but there, it was also paired with some newer-style games, some completely invented ones, and -- more importantly -- original and heartfelt storytelling. "Pixels," however, doesn't have much that would draw younger viewers, or women, for that matter.

Plus, it opened on an ultra-crowded weekend. Not only did it have to compete against two other new wide-release movies, but it was also up against five more hit movies still playing in at least 2,600 theaters each. Among those are "Ant-Man" and "Jurassic World," that might have siphoned off older, nostalgia-minded viewers, while younger viewers would still have been drawn to "Minions" and "Inside Out."
The underwhelming performance of "Pixels" highlights what a precarious position Sandler is in these days. For one thing, at a time when overseas revenues drive most studio decisions, Sandler doesn't wield the clout that action stars do. Comedy doesn't translate as well in foreign lands as action, and Sandler's movies do only about a third of their business abroad.

For two straight years, Forbes has put Sandler on the top of its list of most overpaid film stars, meaning that he's the leading man who offers Hollywood studios the lowest return on investment for his high salary. That's especially bad news for Sony, which had an eight-picture deal with Sandler that ends with "Pixels" and this fall's "Hotel Transylvania 2." The disenchantment of Sony executives with Sandler was apparent in their profane grumblings about him in e-mails stolen in last year's Sony hack.

Sandler may not care. He's making his next four movies for Netflix, which has promised to keep the budgets near $80 million a film, which Sandler is used to. Of course, the streaming site will actually spend less than Sandler's usual studio partners do, since marketing costs will be minimal and distribution costs non-existent. Box office also won't be a factor; if each movie helps Netflix recruit another million subscribers and keep them for a year, then Sandler will have done his job.

Sandler's older movies are reportedly perennial favorites on the streaming site, so having new Sandler product ought to help with subscriber retention. True, Sandler has already waded into controversy with his first Netflix production, "The Ridiculous Six." But no one is going to unsubscribe to Netflix because one of its thousands of offerings is a politically incorrect Adam Sandler movie.

Besides, Netflix is notoriously secretive about the number of streams each title generates. Whether Sandler's next few movies are enormously popular or as ignored as his last few theatrical movies have been, no one will know. Which means Sandler's bargaining position won't be hurt the next time he wants to make a studio deal and return to Hollywood.

Whether anyone will show up at the multiplex when he does is another story.