Twilight Breaking a Record, Moviegoers Breaking Down

Bella and Edward squeezed another win out of a depleted audience, while The Artist, The Descendants and Shame launched their Oscar drives

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Andrew Cooper / Summit Entertainment

Who went to the movies this weekend? In round numbers: nobody. Granted, nobody is a relative term in the film business. A closer estimate for attendance on Dec.’s first weekend would be 10 million, seeing as the frame’s cumulative gross is estimated at $82 million, for the second poorest weekend total of 2011, and 6% lower than last year’s post-Thanksgiving-weekend weekend. That would explain the short lines at the concession stand, the empty spaces in multiplex parking lots and the geshreying in L.A.-area executive suites. Only the specialty films—Oscar hopefuls like The Descendants, The Artist and Shame—generated much cheer or coin. And in true indie fashion, that was pennies on the dollar.

(READ: Why you’d be nuts to love The Twilight Saga)

The good news for Summit Entertainment is that vampires ruled again. Breaking Dawn Part 1, the penultimate chapter in The Twilight Saga, earned $16.9 million to win the weekend at North American theaters, according to preliminary studio estimates. This marked the first time Bella and Edward have reigned for three consecutive weeks, a fact that demonstrates not only their power but also the weakness of the competition.

(READ: Why anyone who doesn’t love The Twilight Saga is nuts

Well, not weakness—since the other films in mainstream release included such crowd-pleasers and critical favorites as Hugo, The Muppets, Arthur Christmas and Happy Feet Two—so much as an unseemly congestion of similar movies. When studios open four family-themed pictures within the six days before Thanksgiving, they have to expect the even the most industrious of moms will take her brood to see one or two films but not all of them. In a sense, the moguls told these movies, “You kids go out and play—in the street, with all the other kids and lots of traffic.” Even if they don’t end up as roadkill, some will get dented.

(READ: Mary Pols’ heart felt hymn to The Muppets)

That’s what happened here. The Muppets, which in a less crowded climate might be speeding toward $100 million domestic, limped into second place with $11.2 million (well below even the Disney studio’s conservative $15-million forecast) for a 10-day total of $56.1 million. Hugo, which on Thursday won the National Board of Review award for the year’s best film, earned $7.6 million for third place, while playing on slightly more than half of the screens showing The Muppets; a 3-D surcharge certainly helped. But the Martin Scorsese fable about an orphan in a train station needs to pick up steam if it is to come near earning back the $175 million spent on it.

(READ: Why moviegoers should rescue Hugo)

The animated feature Arthur Christmas suffered the biggest second-week drop of the kid-friendly trio. Aardman Studios, the movie’s British producer, must rely on continental enthusiasm to reach break-even; Arthur has already grossed $45.3 million abroad. Opening the weekend before the other three family films, Happy Feet Two has taken in $51.8 million in 17 days, less than half the $121.5 million that the original earned in the same time five Thanksgivings ago. Where have all the penguin-lovers gone?

(READ: Who’s happy about Happy Feet Two?)

At this time of year, mainstream movies and indie films on parallel tracks—parallel, that is, if you were to place a Lionel train set next to the rails the Acela travels on. While Hollywood is waiting for the big year-end movies, and hoping they’ll be blockbusters, the Indieland minimoguls are launching their awards campaigns with prestige product in limited release and hoping they’ll stick around until Oscar night.

(READ: Richard Corliss’ review of Shame)

Shame, the bleak and probing study of Michael Fassbender’s penis—sorry, of a Manhattan sex addict—opened strongly, earning $361,181 in 10 theaters, a good start for the NC-17-rated drama. Fassbender’s turn as Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method stayed on four screens in its second week and pulled in $122,517, or $415,880 in its 12 days or release. The Artist, that effervescent French tribute to silent films, and winner of the New York Film Critics Circle prize for Best Film, expanded from four to six theaters and cadged $205,580 on six screens, for a 10-day total of about $500,000. In wider release at 244 theaters, Michelle Williams’ impersonation of Marilyn Monroe in My Weekend With Marilyn grossed $1.8 million and $3.9 million in its second week.

(READ: Mary Pols on My Week With Marilyn)

The one “indie” film to crack the top 10, The Descendants, managed a burly $5.2 million on 574 screens. It’s made $18.1 million in three weeks, and is following the trajectory of its star George Clooney’s previous Oscar contender Up in the Air. That title could describe the fragile equilibrium of movie people just now. If a Christmastime sequel—a Sherlock Holmes or Mission: Impossible or Chipmunks—doesn’t bring them zillions, they’ll be crashing to earth fasting than you can sing “Auld Lang Syne.”

(READ: Why The Descendants maybe doesn’t deserve an Oscar)

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

  1. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I, $16.9 million; $247.3 million, third week
  2. The Muppets, $11.2 million; $56.1 million, second week
  3. Hugo, $7.6 million; $25.2 million, second week
  4. Arthur Christmas, $7.35 million; $25.3 million, second week
  5. Happy Feet Two, $6 million; $51.8 million, third week
  6. Jack and Jill, $5.5 million; $64.3 million, fourth week
  7. The Descendants, $5.2 million; $18.1 million, third week
  8. Immortals, $4.4 million; $75.6 million, fourth week
  9. Tower Heist, $4.1 million; $70.8 million, fifth week
  10. Puss in Boots, $3.05 million; $139.5 million, sixth week