What If They Gave a New Year’s Eve Party and Nobody Came?

Revelers stay home as the box office slumps to its worst weekend in three years

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Andrew Schwartz / Warner Bros.

Ashton Kutcher and Lea Michele in New Year's Eve.

Mothball the hats and horns: New Year’s Eve is already a bust. Old acquaintances were forgot this weekend, as Til Schweiger and an all-star cast failed to lure the mass audience to this premature holiday bash. The rest of Hollywood was feeling glum too. The Sitter, Jonah Hill’s stab at stand-alone stardom, couldn’t find many clients; and the quartet of family-friendly Thanksgiving holdovers — The Muppets, Arthur Christmas, Hugo and Happy Feet Two — were more or less orphaned. All in all, the weekend registered the lowest take at the North American box office since September 2008.

New Year’s Eve did “win” the weekend, according to early studio estimates. But a first-three-days total of $13.7 million was nothing to celebrate for Garry Marshall, the film’s director. Marshall’s Valentine’s Day, using the same formula of famous actors pretending to fall in love, earned $56.3 million — more than four times New Year’s Eve’s opening — in February 2010. The new film, which Indiewire’s Gabe Toro contemptuously labeled Dancing With the Stars, The Movie, also opened well below both the morning line of industry swamis and the lowball prediction of its own studio, Warner Bros.

(READ: How New Year’s Eve dropped the ball)

It’s possible that New Year’s Eve just came out too early: opening the movie three weeks before the day it celebrates is the equivalent of bringing Valentine’s Day to market on Martin Luther King Day weekend. Designed to give women a break from Christmas shopping, the picture did attract that demographic (70% of the audience was female), just not enough of it, and received an acceptable rating of B+ from the CinemaScore survey of exiting patrons. As the season’s only mainstream romantic comedy, New Year’s Eve could hang around until Dec. 31, when couples might be in the mood for holiday-turkey leftovers. But based on early returns, Marshall should make a resolution to resist any plans for a Flag Day movie.

(FIND: How many seconds is Robert De Niro in New Year’s Eve?)

A reliably mouthy presence in Judd Apatow movies (Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Funny People, Get Him to the Greek), Hill needed to prove he could carry a comedy on his own star power. He still needs to do that. The Sitter was meant as a grungy, R-rated parody of PG-ish movies in which tough guys have to take care of tots: Adam Sandler in Big Daddy, Bruce Willis in The Kid, Eddie Murphy in Daddy Day Care, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in The Game Plan, to mention just a few in this endless, undistinguished list. But The Sitter pulled in just $10 million, again below the forecasts of studio publicists and blogging touts, and managed only a C+ CinemaScore. After this and Your Highness, director David Gordon Green, who earned big critical cred with esteemed indies before helming gross-out bromances, should consider returning to his no-budget roots.

(READ: Mary Pols on how much to pay The Sitter)

This was supposed to be the weekend that The Muppets vaulted past behind The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I. But the puppet show finished just behind the vampire smoochfest, which has now earned more than $600 million worldwide and is on course to reach the $700 million theatrical grosses posted by its two predecessors. Some insiders suspect that the humor in The Muppets, which scored an ecstatic 97% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, might be too hip for the yokels. There’s also the “controversy” that Fox News stirred up, amid vague charges that the movie makes fun of the oil industry. But the original Happy Feet made much more direct statements about corporate polluters on its way to a $200 million domestic gross; and Avatar, the top-earning film of all time, basically rooted for American soldiers to be wiped out by aliens. The profound takeaway: people will go if they wanna, and won’t if they don’t.

(READ: Mary Pols pets The Muppets)

Say this for The Muppets: it’s earned more in three weekends than Happy Feet Two has in four. And its domestic take of $65.8 million is nearly as much as the cume of two other kid-aimed films that opened the same day. Arthur Christmas, the Aardman Animations CGI feature, has an estimated 17-day tally of $33,490,000, close to a dead heat with the $33,489,000 earned so far by Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s award-winning, budget-busting tribute to silent movies. As an actual Christmas movie, will Arthur get a boost toward Dec. 25, as New Year’s Eve might when it gets closer to Dec. 31? We’re in Don’t Know territory, bordering on Don’t Care.

(READ: A hurrah and a ‘Humbug’ for Arthur Christmas)

The news was more festive in Indieville, where Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the latest adaptation of John le Carré’s espionage novel, opened to $300,737 in just four theaters — the year’s third highest per-screen average, Peter Knegt of Indiewire reports, behind Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life. Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, featuring Charlize Theron’s Oscar-angled turn as a prom queen past her prime, cadged $320,000 at eight venues for $40,000 a pop — strong but below per-screen averages for Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking, Juno and Up in the Air in their debut weekends. And We Need to Talk About Kevin, showcasing Tilda Swinton’s Academy chops, pulled in $24,000 at one Manhattan theater.

(READ reviews of Tinker Tailor, Young Adult and We Need to Talk About Kevin)

In indie-holdover and critics’-awards action, My Week with Marilyn, which today earned Michelle Williams the Boston Society of Film Critics’ Best Actress prize, crossed the $5 million mark in its fourth week. The Artist, which added Best Film citations from the Boston and New York Online groups to go with its New York Film Critics Circle top prize, is close to $1 million in 17 days in just a few theaters. Michael Fassbender, who won Best Actor today from the Los Angeles Film Critics for four 2011 movies, continued to exercise his art-house star quality in two of them: the NC-17 Shame ($276,000 for the weekend, $774,154 for 10 days) and the Freud-Jung psychodrama A Dangerous Method ($80,000 in four theaters, $539,134 in 17 days). The Descendants, the Alexander Payne dramedy that took today’s Best Film award from the Los Angeles critics, has now expanded to 876 screens and is chugging into the mid–$20 millions, with more to come as the pre-Oscar season heats up.

(READ: Richard Corliss on The Descendants)

If these films continue to flourish with audiences in the next few weeks, at least some movie people — the little guys — will have a happy New Year’s Eve and a very merry 2012.

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

1. New Year’s Eve, $13.7 million, first weekend

2. The Sitter, $10 million, first weekend

3. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I, $7.9 million; $259.5 million, fourth week

4. The Muppets, $7.1 million; $65.8 million, third week

5. Arthur Christmas, $6.6 million; $33.5 million, third week

6. Hugo, $6.1 million; $33.5 million, third week

7. The Descendants, $4.8 million; $23.6 million, fourth week

8. Happy Feet Two, $3.75 million; $56.85 million, fourth week

9. Jack and Jill, $3.2 million; $68.6 million, fifth week

10. Immortals, $2.4 million; $79.85 million, fifth week