Bond Holds, Butler Bombs on a Sleepy Weekend

'Skyfall' keeps flying high, and 'Lincoln' stays alive, while Gerard Butler's 'Playing for Keeps' sinks.

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Francois Duhamel/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions

Hollywood virtually closed up shop for inventory this weekend, letting its November hits reap some more cash while holding the big year-end movies for the Christmas crunch. The only new picture in wide release, Playing for Keeps, stumbled into sixth place with a meager $6 million. A solid B-plus rating from the CinemaScore survey of early attendees will not help this romcom catastrophe. Nor will it advance the cause of its leading man, Gerard Butler, whose last three films — Machine Gun Preacher, Coriolanus andChasing Mavericks — have grossed a total of $7.1 million in the U.S. and Canada. Butler urgently needs a 300 sequel or a deep career rethink.

(READ: Mary Pols on Gerard Butler’s Chasing Mavericks)

The James Bond film Skyfall returned to No. 1, according to studios’ preliminary estimates of the North American box office. It replaces The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, which fell to third place following three weeks at the top of the heap. After 50 years of Bond movies, 007 may be eligible for AARP membership, but he still brings in the crowds. In his 23rd official film caper, Her Majesty’s most venerable secret agent has earned $261.6 million at domestic theaters and $918.2 million worldwide — the best Bond take of all time, though in real dollars it trails the $1.1 billion amassed by 1965’s Thunderball.

(SEE: 50 Things You Didn’t Know About James Bond)
Rise of the Guardians soared to second place, putting space between itself and its 3-D rival Life of Pi. Since Nov. 21, when both films opened, the industry consensus has pegged the DreamWorks animated feature as a box-office disappointment, and the Ang Lee fantasy a budding hit. Both were risky projects that cost more than $100 million to produce; but Guardians has outgrossed Pi in each of its three weekends, and after 17 days it leads the Lee movie $61.9 million to $60.9 million at the domestic wickets. Overseas, Pi has the bigger slice, $105.7 million to $91.5 million; that’s due largely to the $69.3 million (more than its entire North American revenue) that the Taiwanese-born Lee’s film has already earned in China. The epic battle of iffy propositions continues.

(READ: Mary Pols on Rise of the Guardians and Corliss on Life of Pi)

Christmas is barely two weeks away, and a dozen prestige and action entries will be crowded into the last 12 days of the year. You’d think that some major movie — say, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, the bring-me-the-head-of-Osama-bin-Laden thriller that last week won the top Film and Director awards from the both New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review — would slip into this weekend’s vacuum to garner early revenue and easy publicity. Or that some modest mainstream picture would take advantage of the void. On this weekend two years ago, the third episode in the Narnia series opened to a very respectable $24 million, and the Johnny Depp-Angelina Jolie spy caper The Tourist took in $16.5 million. In 2008, the Keanu Reeves remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still earned $30.5 million.

(READ: Zero Dark Thirty Scores With the New York Film Critics)

Instead, Hollywood countered the bell-ringing of mall Santas with almost total silence, of the not-a-creature-was-stirring variety. Apparently the moguls feared not just the seasonal slump but the Ghost of Gollum Future. “It was a slow box office weekend,” wrote Todd Cunningham of The Wrap, “because the studios largely steered clear ahead of Friday’s U.S. debut of The Hobbit.” No question, the Peter Jackson prequel looms large — it’s projected to earn $100 million or more in North America next weekend — but is that a reason to think moviegoers would spend no money this weekend? A blockbuster on the horizon isn’t like a superstorm warning; customers don’t retreat to higher ground and take their bankrolls with them.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)

The lack of serious new competition allowed the oldsters to keep flexing their muscles. The Disney toon Wreck-It Ralph inched up to $164.4 million, and the Denzel Washington drama Flight reached $86.2 million; both films are in their sixth week. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, with a New York Film Critics-certified star turn by Daniel Day Lewis, extended its Oscar trajectory with a stalwart $9.1 million for fourth place. Having grossed $97.2 million after five weekends (the first one in only 11 theaters), Lincoln will cross the $100-million threshold by Wednesday. The film also provides Hollywood’s all-time top moneymaking director with a commodity that’s been elusive lately: a box-office hit.

(READ: Joe Klein on Abraham Lincoln, Horse Trader)

In this millennium Spielberg cashed in on his two Tom Cruise science-fiction adventures — the 2002 Minority Report ($132.1 million domestic) and the 2005 War of the Worlds ($234.3 million) — and, a decade ago, on the twinned star power of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks in Catch Me If You Can ($164.6 million). His biggest, most predictable smash came in 2008 with Indiana Jones and the Lethargy of the Unnecessary Sequel ($317.1 million). But Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, The Terminal, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse all topped out in the high $70-millions, and Munich couldn’t reach $50 million. It’s odd and encouraging that Lincoln — like Munich a cerebral political thriller scripted by Tony Kushner — should cue the director’s return to the box-office winner’s circle.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Lincoln

High-IQ mainstream movies like Lincoln, Life of Pi and Flight again siphoned prospective audiences away from indie fare. Bill Murray’s turn as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson was once thought a sure shot for Academy Award consideration — until people saw the movie at the Toronto Film Festival. Murray’s popularity brought in some pre-Christmas browsers, but not enough: the tattle-all drama about FDR’s sexual dalliances as he counsels King George VI (yes, the king from The King’s Speech) earned $83,280 at four theaters.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Hyde Park on Hudson)

Other arty debuts, with less star quality, fared poorly. Actor-writer-director Edward Burns went the seasonal route with The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, also at four theaters, but bagged only a Scrooge-like $13,800. The distributors of Deadfall — a crime drama whose cast includes quite a few people you’ve heard of (Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde, Charlie Hunnam, Kris Kristofferson, Sissy Spacek, Kate Mara, Treat Williams) but no marquee dazzlers — had not reported the weekend gross as of Sunday afternoon. Maybe they’re waiting until after The Hobbit opens.

[UPDATE: The Deadfall gross finally showed up in the “actual” figures issued Monday. It was nothing to celebrate: $19,391 at 11 theaters.]

(READ: reviews of The Fitzgerald Family Christmas and Deadfall)

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

1. Skyfall, $11 million; $261.6 million, fifth week

2. Rise of the Guardians, $10.5 million; $61.9 million, third week

3. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, $9.2 million; $268.7 million, fourth week

4. Lincoln, $9.1 million; $97.3 million, fifth week

5. Life of Pi, $8.3 million; $60.9 million, third week

6. Playing for Keeps, $6 million, first weekend

7. Wreck-It Ralph, $4.9 million; $164.4 million, sixth week

8. Red Dawn, $4.3 million; $37.3 million, third week

9. Flight, $3.1 million; $86.2 million, sixth week

10. Killing Them Softly, $2.7 million; $11.8 million, second week