Even "Sherlock Holmes" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks" couldn't break the box office out of its malaise this weekend.
While box-office watchers had expected the two franchises to bring the multiplex roaring back to life, overall grosses were down 14 percent compared to last year at this time.
In fact, the most impressive numbers of the weekend belonged to the No. 3 movie.
"Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" played at only 425 locations -- 300 of them IMAX -- but it grossed a remarkable $13 million. That is an exceptional $30,580 per-location average for the Paramount/Skydance movie.
As expected, "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" is the No. 1 movie in America -- but with only $40.2 million. Warner Bros. did not believe the movie would open as well as its 2009 predecessor, "Sherlock Holmes," but more optimistic observers figured the film would take in at least $10 million more than it did.
Fox's "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked" finished in second place, grossing an estimated $23.5 million -- just short of the studio's pre-release expectations for the G-rated film.
Among specialty films, Roman Polanski's "Carnage," distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, opened on five screens. The movie, starring Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz, grossed $85,696, or $17,139 per screen.
For wide releases, though, it was a tough weekend.
"What we have is a soft marketplace, to be sure, in general," Chris Aronson, Fox's domestic distribution chief, told TheWrap. "We're all battling that."
Don Harris, who heads distribution at Paramount, agreed.
"In terms of total box office, we were expecting this weekend to be up against last year -- without taking into account our movie," he told TheWrap. "I certainly expected more out of the weekend."
The exception was "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol," which stars Tom Cruise and cost about $140 million to make.
Paramount originally planned to open Brad Bird's PG-13 rated movie -- the fourth in the "Mission: Impossible" franchise -- this weekend, Harris said.
But it didn't want to go head-to-head with "Sherlock Holmes," so it tried a limited release strategy with 300 IMAX theaters and 125 other locations.
The idea was to build buzz now and open wide on Wednesday. It seems to be working.
"You continue to look for ways to distinguish yourself and separate yourself from the pack," Harris said.
Of the movie's $13 million opening, $11 million came from IMAX screens, Greg Foster, chairman, filmed entertainment at IMAX, told TheWrap.
"By opening early, we are the sort of impetus, the momentum, the ambassadors of word-of-mouth," he said. "The movie opens wide on Wednesday, so our 300 screens are a way to get the word out that this isn't just a regular movie."
At 50 of the IMAX locations, audiences also got to see a 6-minute prologue to "The Dark Knight Rises," Christopher Nolan's next "Batman" film.
Internationally, "M:I4" had extremely strong numbers. It opened in 36 markets and grossed $68.2 million.
The big hope for the domestic box office this past weekend had been Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes, which opened at 3,703 locations.
The first installment of Warner's franchise opened to $62.3 million, and ultimately grossed nearly $525 million worldwide.
While the studio expected a weaker opening this time around, $40.2 million is a disappointment for the movie, which cost an estimated $125 million to make.
Cinemascore, the audience polling company, gave the "Sherlock Holmes" sequel a solid grade of A-minus.
"Alvin and the Chipmunks," which cost $80 million to make, received a B-plus from Cinemascore, though its core audience of youngsters gave it higher marks.
Those younger than 25 gave "Alvin" an A- and those younger than 18 gave it an A.
"That is our wheelhouse, so we're excited about that," Fox's Aronson said.
"Alvin" skewed female and young: 54 percent of the audience was female, 53 percent was younger than 25 and 43 percent was younger than 18.
Aronson said the audience increased by 47 percent from Friday to Saturday -- a good sign for the movie.
"Kids weren't available on Friday and they start to become available tomorrow," he said. "Being the only G-rated film for the holidays puts us in good shape."
Mike Mitchell directed "Chipwrecked," which brings Jason Lee back as the lead live-action role. He plays a paternal figure to the high-pitched, CG-rendered singing and talking chipmunks, who get stuck on an island after going overboard from a cruise ship.
The last "Chipmunks" movie, the 2009 "Alvin and the Chipmunks: the Squeakquel," premiered to $48.9 million and went on to gross $443 million worldwide.
Here's the top 10 for the weekend:
"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" ($40.2m)
"Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked" ($23.5m)
"Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" ($13m)
"New Year's Eve" ($7.4m)
"The Sitter" ($4.4m)
"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1" ($4.3m)
"Young Adult" ($3.65m)
"Arthur Christmas" ($3.6m)
"The Muppets" ($3.45m)