Daniel Smith
(L-r) JUDE LAW as Dr. Watson and ROBERT DOWNEY JR. as Sherlock Holmes in Warner Bros. Picturesâ and Village Roadshow Picturesâ action adventure mystery â SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS,â a Warner Bros. Pictures release.Photo by Daniel Smith

Top 10

1. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” $40 million.

2. “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked,” $23.5 million.

3. “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” $13 million.

4. “New Year’s Eve,” $7.4 million.

5. “The Sitter,” $4.4 million.

6. “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1,” $4.3 million.

7. “Young Adult,” $3.7 million.

8. “Hugo,” $3.63 million.

9. “Arthur Christmas,” $3.6 million.

10. “The Muppets,” $3.5 million.

S herlock Holmes is facing his worst enemy: declining crowds at theaters as this year’s domestic movie attendance dips to the lowest in 16 years.

Robert Downey Jr.’s sequel “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” debuted on top with a $40 million weekend, off 36 percent from the first installment’s $62.3 million opening two years ago, according to studio estimates Sunday.

The first movie opened over Christmas weekend, one of the busiest times for movie theaters. Distributor Warner Bros. predicts the “Holmes” sequel, which pits Downey’s detective against archrival Professor Moriarty, will make up the lost ground over the holidays.

“The pattern is different,” said Dan Fellman, the studio’s head of distribution. “What you can put in the bank those nine days before the official Christmas play time, that’s the difference between our opening with a bigger number on Christmas day and opening early this time. At the end of the holiday period, we should be in the same place.”

The “Holmes” sequel opened in six overseas markets, including the detective’s native Britain, and took in $14.7 million to bring its worldwide total to $54.7 million.

After two previous weekends that were Hollywood’s worst of the year, overall business was down again, about 12 percent lower than the same weekend in 2010 as Hollywood struggles to interest audiences in its big year-end releases.

Paul Dergarabedian, an analyst for box-office tracker, estimated that the number of tickets sold domestically in 2011 will come in below 1.3 billion.

That would be the lowest attendance since 1995, when admissions totaled 1.26 billion. Domestic attendance in modern times peaked at 1.6 billion in 2002 and has been on a generally decline since.

“These low-attendance numbers are taking the gas out of the tank,” Dergarabedian said. “All the momentum we had kind of came to a dead stop.”

The 20th Century Fox family sequel “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” did even worse than “Holmes.” “Chipwrecked” opened at No. 2 with $23.5 million, about half the business the first two “Chipmunks” movies did on their debut weekends.

The studio had expected a bigger debut, but with schools shutting down for the holidays, Fox executives hope business will pick up.

“We are battling a marketplace issue right now,” said Chris Aronson, head of distribution for 20th Century Fox. “We cannot make light of that. However, we have a very satisfying, playable movie and the only G-rated movie for Christmas. So as kids get out this week, this is going to help position it for a successful run.”

“Chipwrecked” added $14.5 million in 38 overseas markets, bringing its worldwide total to $38 million.

Tom Cruise and Paramount had a spot of good news. Their action sequel “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” got off to a healthy start at No. 3 with a $13 million weekend playing exclusively at huge-screen IMAX theaters and some other large-format cinemas.

“Ghost Protocol” goes into general release Wednesday.

The movie already has opened in 36 overseas markets, where it pulled in $68.2 million, putting its global haul at more than $80 million.

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