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Video: Watch 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows' trailer

updated 12/18/2011 1:33:17 PM ET 2011-12-18T18:33:17

Sherlock Holmes is facing his worst enemy: declining crowds at theaters as this year's domestic movie attendance dips to the lowest in 16 years.

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Robert Downey Jr.'s sequel "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" debuted on top with a $40 million weekend, off 36 percent from the first installment's $62.3 million opening two years ago, according to studio estimates Sunday.

The first movie opened over Christmas weekend, one of the busiest times for movie theaters. Distributor Warner Bros. predicts the "Holmes" sequel, which pits Downey's detective against archrival Professor Moriarty, will make up the lost ground over the holidays.

"The pattern is different," said Dan Fellman, the studio's head of distribution. "What you can put in the bank those nine days before the official Christmas play time, that's the difference between our opening with a bigger number on Christmas day and opening early this time. At the end of the holiday period, we should be in the same place."

After two previous weekends that were Hollywood's worst of the year, overall business was down again, about 12 percent lower than the same weekend in 2010 as Hollywood struggles to interest audiences in its big year-end releases.

Paul Dergarabedian, an analyst for box-office tracker Hollywood.com, estimated that the number of tickets sold domestically in 2011 will come in below 1.3 billion.

That would be the lowest attendance since 1995, when admissions totaled 1.26 billion.

"These low-attendance numbers are taking the gas out of the tank," Dergarabedian said. "All the momentum we had kind of came to a dead stop."

The 20th Century Fox family sequel "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked" did even worse than "Holmes." "Chipwrecked" opened at No. 2 with $23.5 million, about half the business the first two "Chipmunks" movies did on their debut weekends.

The studio had expected a bigger debut, but with schools shutting down for the holidays, Fox executives hope business will pick up.

Weekend box office

"We are battling a marketplace issue right now," said Chris Aronson, head of distribution for 20th Century Fox. "We cannot make light of that. However, we have a very satisfying, playable movie and the only G-rated movie for Christmas. So as kids get out this week, this is going to help position it for a successful run."

Tom Cruise and Paramount had a spot of good news. Their action sequel "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol" got off to a healthy start at No. 3 with a $13 million weekend playing exclusively at huge-screen IMAX theaters and some other large-format cinemas.

"Ghost Protocol" goes into general release Wednesday.

With critics praising the movie's spectacular action sequences, "Ghost Protocol" may restore the hitmaker status of Cruise, whose audience became disenchanted with odd antics in the star's personal life five or six years ago.

"I would think any of that is way in the past," said Don Harris, head of distribution at Paramount, which took the unusual step of going early in huge-screen cinemas to build buzz for the general release.

'Sherlock Holmes' goes mysteriously awry

"The plan was always to put the movie out into the best presentation theaters in North America," Harris said. "We hoped that people would recognize how good the movie was and how special it was being treated."

Paramount's comic drama "Young Adult," starring Charlize Theron, had a weak expansion into wider release, finishing at No. 7 with $3.7 million. The film had opened with big numbers a week earlier in a handful of theaters.

At the beginning of 2011, Hollywood's summer and fall lineup looked so strong that studio executives were predicting the industry would break the domestic box-office record of $10.6 billion set in 2009, a mark that was nearly reached again in 2010.

But with less than two weeks left and revenues lagging 4 percent behind last year's, that record is out of reach. The picture is even bleaker factoring in this year's higher ticket prices, which mean attendance is running 5 percent below last year's.

Hollywood still can go out with a bang. Along with the new "Mission: Impossible," the holidays bring two more big thrillers — Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin" and David Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" — along with Spielberg's historical epic "War Horse" and Cameron Crowe and Matt Damon's family-friendly comic drama "We Bought a Zoo."

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Where available, latest international numbers are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Robert Downey Jr.

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  1. Showing some skin

    Downey Jr. donned lederhosen while promoting "Iron Man 3" with co-star Gwyneth Paltrow in Munich, Germany on April 12, 2013. (Christof Stache / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Power couple

    Downey Jr. and his wife Susan Downey, a producer, arrive at the premiere of 'The Avengers' on April 11, 2012 in Hollywood. (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Choice of the people

    Actor Robert Downey Jr. won two People's Choice Awards on Jan. 9, 2013. He won favorite movie actor and favorite movie superhero, but lost out to Chris Hemsworth for favorite action movie star. (Christopher Polk / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Need a hand?

    Downey Jr. arrives at the "Iron Man 3" panel during Comic-Con International 2012 on July 14, 2012 in San Diego, Calif. (Alberto E. Rodriguez / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Avengers assemble!

    Downey Jr., in "Iron Man" suit, prepares for battle with his fellow superheroes in the 2012 film "The Avengers." (Handout / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Adventurous game

    Downey Jr. reprises his role as Sherlock Holmes in the 2011 action adventure mystery "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows." The film also stars Noomi Rapace as Sim, and Jude Law is back in his role as Watson. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Road trip!

    Downey Jr. stars opposite Zach Galifianakis in the 2010 comedy "Due Date." Downey Jr. plays Peter Highman, a high-strung father-to-be who is forced to join aspiring actor Ethan Tremblay on a road trip in order to make it home on time for his child's birth. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Father and son

    Director and actor Robert Downey Sr. speaks onstage during the 25th American Cinematheque Awards honoring his son, Robert, held at The Beverly Hilton hotel on Oct. 14, 2011, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Immortalized

    Robert Downey Jr. has his hands imprinted in the concrete at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., on Dec. 7, 2009. "It's just kinda wild that I'm here now," he told Entertainment Tonight. "I remember when I was a kid and we lived up the street, I used to walk down here ... and I'd look at all these names." (Kristian Dowling / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Elementary, dear Watson

    Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. star as Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes in Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes." The film is based on the graphic novel by Lionel Wigram. The new Holmes reportedly is more adventuresome than past depictions, and takes full advantage of his skills as a boxer and swordsman. (Warner Bros. Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Mind the gap

    A wax figure portraying Robert Downey Jr. in his latest role as Sherlock Holmes stands on the platform at Baker Street tube station before taking up residence at London's Madame Tussauds on Dec. 9, 2009. (David Parry / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Going 'Soloist'

    Former musical prodigy turned homeless man, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) is discovered on the streets of downtown Los Angeles by newspaper columnist Steve Lopez (Downey) in "The Soloist," the new movie from "Atonement" director Joe Wright. (DreamWorks Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Happy couple

    Downey and wife Susan arrive at the 81st Annual Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009 in Los Angeles, Calif. Downey was nominated for best supporting actor for his role in "Tropic Thunder," but the award went to the late Heath Ledger. (Frazer Harrison / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Risk taker

    Downey took on the controversial role of Kirk Lazarus in "Tropic Thunder." Lazarus, a serious Australian actor, changes his skin pigment to take on the role of an African-American soldier in a Vietnam War film. Downey delivered some classic lines in the film, such as "Man, I don't drop character 'till I done the DVD commentary." (DreamWorks Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Father knows best

    Downey and his son Indio attend the Los Angeles Lakers vs. Utah Jazz playoff game at the Staples Center on May 4, 2008 in Los Angeles. Indio is Downey's son with former wife Deborah Falconer. (Noel Vasquez / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Don't call it a comeback

    Downey wowed fans and critics alike with his turn as Tony Stark in Jon Favreau's "Iron Man." Stark is a wealthy industrialist who, after being kidnapped by terrorists, builds an iron suit to escape. He then realizes that he can use his new suit to fight evil. Downey brought a casual charm to the role; a sequel is already shooting. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. He's money

    Downey attends the "Iron Man" press conference at Shinagawa Prince Hotel on Sept. 3, 2008 in Tokyo, Japan. The film earned over $582 million worldwide. (Koichi Kamoshida / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Killer role

    Downey co-starred as grizzled reporter Paul Avery in David Fincher's 2007 film "Zodiac," which tracked the fruitless search for the Zodiac killer in the 1970s. Avery's career is derailed when the killer's trail goes cold. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Getting animated

    Downey co-starred as Jim Barris in Richard Linklater's 2006 film, "A Scanner Darkly." Set in suburban Orange County, Calif., in a future where America has lost the war on drugs, a reluctant undercover cop (Keanu Reeves) is ordered to start spying on his friends, and is launched on a paranoid journey into the absurd. The film is based on the book by Philip K. Dick and was filmed digitally and then animated using interpolated rotoscope over the original footage. () Back to slideshow navigation
  20. This one's a dog

    Downey co-starred in the 2006 "Shaggy Dog" remake as Dr. Kozak, a scientist who kidnaps a 300-year-old sheepdog in order to find out the dog's secret to longevity. But when the dog escapes and bites Deputy District Attorney Dave Douglas (Tim Allen), the lawyer turns into a sheepdog. (Walt Disney Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Saintly story

    Dianne Wiest and Downey star in 2006's "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints." The film is a coming-of-age drama about a boy growing up in Astoria, N.Y., during the 1980s. As his friends end up dead, on drugs or in prison, he comes to believe he has been saved from their fate by various so-called saints. (First Look Media) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Actor abroad

    Downey attends the D&G Cannes Party at the Martinez Hotel during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 26, 2006 in Cannes, France. (Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. With a bang

    In 2005's "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," a petty thief (Downey) is brought to Los Angeles for an unlikely audition and finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation along with his high school dream girl (Michelle Monaghan) and a gay detective (Val Kilmer) who has been training him for his upcoming role. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Music man

    Downey poses at an in-store appearance to sign his new CD "The Futurist" at Virgin Megastore on Nov. 23, 2004 in Los Angeles, Calif. Downey sings and plays piano on the album. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Mug shot

    Downey is shown in a mug shot profile Nov. 25, 2000, after his arrest at the Merv Griffin Resort in Palm Springs, Calif. for drug possession. An anonymous caller led investigators to a hotel room at the resort where they found the actor with cocaine and methamphetamines, Palm Springs police officer Ralph Landry said. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Golden Globe winner

    Downey won the award for best supporting actor in a TV series for his role in "Ally McBeal" during the 58th Annual Golden Globes in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Jan. 21, 2001. Downey was fired from the show after two arrests in late 2000. (Lucy Nicholson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Troubled times

    Downey is handcuffed by a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy after being sentenced to jail for six months for violating parole on a prior drug conviction, Monday, Dec. 8, 1997 in Malibu, Calif. Downey's probation was revoked on Oct. 17 of that year when his drug counselor told authorities that the actor violated a court order by using drugs and alcohol in September. (Nick Ut / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Hard time

    Downey makes an appearance at Malibu Municipal Court for a bail hearing, July 29, 1996. Downey was sentenced to a 3-year prison sentence after missing another drug test in 1999. And after serving nearly a year in California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran, Calif., he was released on $5,000 bail. (Stewart Cook / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Natural born talent

    Downey played tabloid TV reporter Wayne Gale in Oliver Stone's 1994 film, "Natural Born Killers." The film tells the story of a pair of serial killers, played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, and the reporter (Downey) who sets out to glorify them. (Warner Bros. Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Tramp time

    Downey was nominated for an Oscar for his work in the 1992 film, "Chaplin," in which he played the title role, that of actor Charlie Chaplin. Richard Attenborough's biopic followed the life of the sometimes controversial and troubled filmmaker and actor. Downey won the BAFTA award for best actor for the role. (TriStar Pictures / Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Early romance

    Downey met Sarah Jessica Parker on the set of the 1984 film, "Firstborn." The couple broke up in 1991. Downey also dated actress Marisa Tomei before marrying Deborah Falconer in 1992. (Zuma Press via Newscom) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Sign of things to come

    Downey starred with Andrew McCarthy and Jami Gertz in 1987's "Less Than Zero." In a role that may have hit a bit too close to home for the troubled star, Downey played a junkie who can't save himself from his own demons. Roger Ebert called Downey's acting "so real, so subtle and so observant that it's scary." (20th Century Fox / Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Early charmer

    Downey starred opposite Molly Ringwald in James Toback's 1987 film "The Pick-up Artist," in which he plays a womanizer who meets his match in the daughter of a mobster. Toback is a director who would remain loyal to Downey throughout his struggle with drugs, casting him in "Two Girls and a Guy" and "Black and White," when other directors had seemingly given up on him. (20th Century Fox / Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Live from New York

    In 1985, Downey joined the cast of "Saturday Night Live." The featured players were, (l-r): Nora Dunn, Danitra Vance, Randy Quaid, Downey, Anthony Michael Hall, Terry Sweeney, Joan Cusack and Jon Lovitz. Downey was among those let go the following year due to a ratings slump. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Weird stardom

    Downey played a bully who tried to get the best of Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith in 1985's "Weird Science." The film, which told the story of two nerds who create the perfect woman, was among those that earned Downey a place in the "Brat Pack." (Universal Pictures / Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
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