Box Office Guru Wrapup: New Year's Eve Rings In the Top Spot

The Sitter, Breaking Dawn Part 1 round out the top three.

This weekend two new subpar comedies and a stale heap of Thanksgiving leftovers made multiplexes the last place audiences wanted to go to as the North American box office slumped to its worst performance of 2011. The all-star holiday pic New Year's Eve and the Jonah Hill-led raunchy laugher The Sitter both met with lackluster debuts topping a weak frame that saw the Top 20 tumble to only $73.2M in ticket sales falling behind the year's previous low of $74M during the September 9-11 frame. But a wide assortment of major tentpoles and sequels are about to attack theaters starting Friday which should bring the marketplace back to life in the final two weeks of the year.

Warner Bros. claimed the number one spot but suffered a weak launch for its holiday ensemble comedy New Year's Eve which fell well below industry expectations to open with just $13.7M, according to estimates. The Garry Marshall-directed film was slammed by critics and ticket buyers seemed to listen as the PG-13 film went out very wide into 3,505 theaters but averaged a soft $3,910. By comparison its predecessor Valentine's Day - the director's last critically-panned, multi-star, ensemble date movie tied to a holiday theme - grossed more in its first day of release with $14.5M on its way to a stellar $56.3M three-day bow and eye-popping $63.1M four-day debut breaking the Presidents Day opening weekend record last year.

Eve hoped that an abundance of popular and semi-popular faces would lure in audiences of all ages and ethnic backgrounds as the cast included Ashton Kutcher, Katherine Heigl, Zac Efron, Josh Duhamel, Ludacris, Jon Bon Jovi, Jessica Biel, Sarah Jessica Parker, Hector Elizondo along with Oscar nominees Michelle Pfeiffer and Abigail Breslin plus Academy Award winners Robert De Niro, Hilary Swank, and Halle Berry. In fact, the posters and billboards featured the faces of no less than 18 stars. But audiences knew a bad film when they saw one and some may have been disappointed enough with the quality of Valentine's Day to skip this new installment. Certainly the marketplace had little direct competition to offer so it could have performed much better if moviegoers were genuinely excited. Holiday shopping in early December does pre-occupy the core audience of adult women but a handful of star-driven films in the past have debuted to solid results during this window.

New Year's Eve continued a string of holiday season disappointments for Warner Bros. which has seen underwhelming results from November releases A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, J. Edgar, and Happy Feet Two. Things should change, however, with next weekend's launch of the highly anticipated sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows which led by a wide margin a recent poll by MovieTickets.com of the December films users were most excited to see. In addition to leading the worst box office weekend of the year, Eve also posted the second lowest gross for a number one opener this year edging out the $13.5M top spot bow of February's Hall Pass, another New Line title from Warners.

Moviegoers around the world were equally disinterested in New Year's Eve as the film debuted to an estimated $12.9M from 36 overseas markets including major territories like Germany, Brazil, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

Opening in second place to weak results was the Jonah Hill comedy The Sitter with an estimated $10M from 2,750 playdates for a soft $3,636 average. The R-rated Fox release about a slacker that babysits a wealthy couple's three privileged kids met with bad reviews and tested Hill's starpower as a solo anchor, a position he had never been in before. The actor failed the test and even though December films have better legs than movies debuting in the other eleven months of the year, Sitter may have a hard time reaching more audiences as this weekend's crowd gave the film a disappointing C+ grade from CinemaScore. Studio research showed that 53% of the audience was 25 and up while males and females were evenly split.

After joining The Help as the only films of 2011 to top the box office for three weeks, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 dropped a couple of spots to third place with an estimated $7.9M in its fourth lap. Down 52%, the Summit blockbuster has now smashed the quarter-billion domestic mark with $259.5M in 24 days and continues to run 3% behind the pace of New Moon, the last Twilight film to play in this same end-of-year period. That film dropped a similar 48% in its fourth round to $8M over the second session of December. A final North American total of $285-290M seems likely which would put it at number 48 on the list of all-time domestic blockbusters. Breaking Dawn fell by half overseas too grossing an estimated $19.8M from 73 markets for a hefty $374M international and a towering $633.5M worldwide. The four-film franchise has now amassed $2.43 billion at the global box office.

Disney's The Muppets held up well in its third weekend dipping 36% to an estimated $7.1M lifting the total to $65.8M. Rival kidpic Arthur Christmas enjoyed the smallest decline of any wide release easing just 11% to an estimated $6.6M for a cume to date of just $33.5M. The Sony release also grossed an estimated $14.3M from 63 overseas markets pushing the international sum to $57.5M and the global tally to $91M.

A pair of expanding awards hopefuls followed. Martin Scorsese's Hugo went from 1,840 to 2,608 theaters in its third round and grossed an estimated $6.1M watching its average slip to a dull $2,349. Paramount's big-budget 3D offering has collected only $33.5M so far and will now face an avalanche of competition for both kids and adults starting Friday. Fox Searchlight's George Clooney vehicle The Descendants rose from 574 to 876 locations in its fourth frame and took in an estimated $4.4M for a decent $5,006 average which was tops for all wide releases this weekend. The total stands at $23.6M.

Toon flop Happy Feet Two fell 37% to an estimated $3.8M for a cume to date of $56.9M which is a troubling 59% below the gross of its predecessor after the same number of days despite the sequel having higher ticket prices and 3D surcharges. Adam Sandler's Jack and Jill took in an estimated $3.2M, off 40%, giving Sony $68.6M so far. Rounding out the top ten was the 3D historical adventure Immortals which dropped 45% to an estimated $2.4M for a total of $79.9M for Relativity. It has now surpassed Limitless to become the top-grossing film ever for the young distributor.

Two new films shined in their platform bows. The Cold War thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Gary Oldman bowed to an estimated $301,000 from only four houses in New York and Los Angeles for a scorching average of $75,250. Earning sensational reviews, the Focus release will expand slowly as it widens to San Francisco, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Boston next weekend before reaching a wider release on December 23.

Paramount's Charlize Theron pic Young Adult will expand faster after this weekend's limited debut which saw an estimated $320,000 from eight theaters in five markets for a strong $40,000 average. It was not as powerful as director Jason Reitman's last effort, 2009's Up in the Air starring George Clooney, which the studio also platformed in early December resulting in a hefty $1.2M bow from 15 locations for a much more impressive $78,763 average on its way to a $83.8M final after earning lots of kudos including Oscar nods for Picture and Director. Young Adult will widen to about 1,000 theaters next weekend when it faces considerable competition for adult audiences from Holmes which should play broadly and from Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked which will take many parents out of the picture. Plus Paramount will also steal other adults away with its special limited release of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol which debuts in 400 IMAX and large-format screens and should pop into the top ten.

Other films continued to post impressive numbers in specialty release. Sony Classics stayed put in four theaters with David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method which dipped 33% to an estimated $80,125 for a $20,031 average and $539,000 cume. The award-winning silent film hit The Artist grossed an estimated $292,000 going from six to 16 theaters for a $18,250 average. The total is $886,000 for The Weinstein Co. Fox Searchlight's Michael Fassbender pic Shame widened from ten to 21 sites and took in an estimated $276,000 for a $13,143 average. The NC-17 film has banked $774,000 to date.

The top ten films crumbled to an estimated $65.2M which was down 20% from last year when The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader opened in the top spot with $24M; and down 21% from 2009 when The Princess and the Frog debuted nationwide at number one with $24.2M.

Follow Gitesh on Twitter.

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