(Updated Saturday noon)
The domestic box office enters 2011 with some troubling trend lines, with attendance headed steeply downward and year-to-year first-quarter comparisons set to lag conspicuously behind 2010.
The first tentpole on the 2011 release calendar, Sony's 3D "Green Hornet" opened with little sting, taking in just $11.1 million as of Friday night, meaning the $40 million Seth Rogen actu-comedy is not quite on pace to gross the $40 million tracking projections for the four-day Martin Luther King holiday weekend.
Universal's Ron Howard-directed ensemble comedy "The Dilemma" debuted alongside "Green Hornet" Friday and is still expected to open to around $20 million.
Neither start will be nearly strong enough to put the domestic box office on pace with its record $2.65 billion first-quarter haul last year, which was driven by mega-hits like "Avatar" and "Alice in Wonderland."
The domestic theatrical distribution business is also coming off a year in which ticket sales were off 8 percent, to 1.2 billion -- the lowest level since 1993. And the North American box office had its worst-attended December since '93.
"It's safe to assume that, at least in the first quarter, the box office will be down significantly from last year," said one studio marketing executive, who believes the effects of a fractured media environment will make it difficult for the studios to match this year's $10.5 billion-plus domestic revenue market, the second biggest haul ever next to 2009's $10.6 billion bounty.
"More and more, people are going to be consuming their content outside of the movie theater, and we have to take a breath and not freak out when attendance and revenue slide this year."
Of course, other studio executives are more optimistic.
"No question, that's what the industry faces," conceded Disney distribution chief Chuck Viane. "But every year, someone delivers an 'Avatar' or an 'Alice' and makes up for it."
Will that happen this year? It's hard to believe there's any first-quarter movie out there this time around that's going to gross more than a billion dollars worldwide.
The first quarter of the year is frequently where mid-size movies reside with middling box office revenues. But there is often a breakout hit like Paramount's "Cloverfield" in 2008 or Sony's "Paul Blart: Mall Cop” in 2009.
And the first three months of this year could have a number of those more modest hits, including a Justin Bieber movie from Paramount, the DreamWorks-produced sci-fi film "I Am Number Four," the Farrelly Brothers comedy "Hall Pass" and the Adam Sandler movie "Just Go With It."
Here's a major studio-by-studio look at the coming three months, starting with Sony and Universal, which are launching big films this weekend:
After a disappointing ending to what had been a stellar 2010, Sony should get back on track quickly with the $110 million Michel Gondry-directed "Green Hornet," which is getting middling reviews (43 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) but solid tracking numbers.
Fully 95 percent of men older than 25 aware of the movie, and among those, 60 percent have definite interest in seeing it.
Sony will follow that up on Feb. 11 with another Adam Sandler/Happy Madison comedy, "Just Go With It."
"You can just assume it'll get to $100 million domestic," said one rival-studio executive. "Happy Madison and Sony know what to do and what to spend every time, and the films comes out in that line every time."
A month later comes the Aaron Eckhart special-effects-laden sci-fi movie "Battle: Los Angeles," which appears poised to break out, given the heat its trailers are putting out.
In the second quarter, Sony has two comedies lined up, the Sandler-written and -directed "Born to Be a Star" (April 22) and the Cameron Diaz movie "Bad Teacher" (June 17).
Beyond Sandler's magic touch, ensemble comedy has been a difficult genre to pull off of late -- see Sony's James L. Brooks-directed "How Do You Know," which has failed to clear $30 million domestically after a month of release.
Into that abyss launches "The Dilemma," teaming proven genre performers Vince Vaughn and Kevin James in a PG-13-rated movie that's currently scoring an unimpressive 27 percent fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes, with only around 75 percent of the total movie-going audience aware it's even coming out.
An active first-six-months for Universal also includes several wild cards, with the James Cameron-produced 3D thriller "Sanctum" (premiering Feb. 4) generating wide disagreement among the tracking firms following it, and Nick Frost/Simon Pegg-written R-rated comedy "Paul" (March 18) generating plenty of geek heat.
"That film could be this year's 'Scott Pilgrim,'" noted a rival-studio executive. "Geeks like me love the trailers, but I don't think America is going to get the joke."
Also coming in with questionable box-office street cred on March 4: the Phillip K. Dick adaptation "The Adjustment Bureau," starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. "It has one of those trailers with too much text in it," said a rival-studio executive. "I think that's always a bad sign."
However, Universal should have its biggest spring in years with "Despicable Me" mastermind Chris Meledandri's 3D-animated "Hop" premiering April 1, "Fast and the Furious" follow-up "Fast Five" debuting April 29, and Judd Apatow-produced, Kristen Wiig-written comedy "Bridesmaids" coming out May 13.
Disney won't be distributing its first DreamWorks movie, the Michael Bay-produced, D.J. Caruso-directed sci-fi/adventure film "I Am Number Four," until Feb. 18, but the studio started running TV adds back in December.
"They have a lot to prove with this one," noted one rival-studio exec.
"It's a terrific little movie that has a very specific audience," added Viane, of the moderately priced ($50 million-$60 million), which is targeting the female-driven "Twilight" crowd with what Disney and DreamWorks executives hope will be a breakout star in young British actor Alex Pettyfer.
If that doesn't work, Disney has plenty of second-quarter firepower lined up to ensure that it's the market-share leader among the majors in the first two quarters of the year, with Robert Zemeckis-produced 3D-animated film "Mars Needs Mons (March 11), "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" (May 20) and "Cars 2" (June 24) lined up.
"We're going to pass a billion dollars (domestically), just like last year," Viane said. "It's going to happen."
The studio has only two movies coming out in the first quarter, sequels "Big Mamma's, Like Father, Like Son" (Feb. 18), kiddie-book adaptation "Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2" (March 25).
Fox is banking on a second quarter that not only inlcudes Hugh Jackman franchiser "X-Men: First Class" (June 3) and upteenth "Planet of the Apes" installment "Rise of the Apes" (June 24), but also the Blue Sky-produced animated 3D film "Rio" on April 15.
"'Rio' is going to be killer," said one studio executive.
Paramount kicks off its year on Jan. 21 with Ivan Reitman-directed romantic comedy "No Strings Attached," which stars Asthon Kutcher and Natalie Portman, and is already tracking to debut to a very respectable $20 million, give or take.
Box-office results for music-performance movies has been uneven through the years, but most movie trackers agree that the Feb. 11 premiere of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never" should be pretty big.
Paramount should continue a solid Q1 with the Gore Verbinski-directed, Johnny Depp-voiced animated "Rango" (March 4).
"'Rango' looks big," noted one rival-studio executive.
Warner's will kick off its year on Jan. 28 with the debut of New Line-produced Anthony Hopkins film "The Rite," which early tracking forecasts to be in the $15 million-$20 million range.
The studio has a potential "Hangover-esque" sleeper hit on its hands on Feb. 25 with Farrelly Brothers movie "Hall Pass" (pictured right) generating rough-cut buzz around town.
"I don't want ot throw out the 'Hangover' word, but the trailer I saw plays really well," said one rival-studio executive.
Also looking big for Warner's: the March 11 debut of "Little Red Riding Hood," with Amanda Seyfried in the title role and directed by the first "Twilight's" Catherine Hardwicke.
"I'm sure they'll throw that 'director-of-"Twilight"' thing around," said a studio rival.
After getting off to an inauspicious start a year ago with Harrison Ford movie "Extraordinary Measures," CBS Films is expecting better results on Jan. 28 with the premiere of an acquired remake of Charles Bronson movie "The Mechanic," with Jason Statham in the title role.
CBS Films also has the delayed teen-targeted "Beastly" debuting March 4 and shares Disney's hopes that star Pettyfer has broken out via "I Am Number Four" by that time.
The Weinstein Company, meanwhile, is catching buzz for sci-fi-thriller "Apollo 18" (also on March 4), while Summit Entertaint -- which debuts 3D action film "Drive Angry" on Feb. 25 -- hopes that Nicolas Cage's recent struggles (see "Season of the Witch") do not prove he can't open a film anymore.
For its part, Lionsgate won't kick off its year until March 18, when Matthew McConaughy/Ryan Phillippe crime drama "The Lincoln Lawyer" opens wide.