Weekend Box Office: Who Can Compete With Sherlock Holmes?

The lead-up to Christmas kicks off this weekend with three sure-to-be blockbusters: Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked, and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.

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As evidenced by the plethora of colons in the last sentence, each of this weekend’s major releases is a sequel. In fact, Game of Shadows is the second in the Sherlock Holmes saga, Chip-Wrecked is the third in the animated Chipmunks franchise, and Ghost Protocol is the fourth Mission: Impossible starring Tom Cruise.

It seems Warner Bros. (NYSE:TWX), Fox (NASDAQ:NWSA), and Paramount (NYSE:VIA) are all reading from the same playbook — and why not? Each of the three sequels’ predecessors were largely successful, grossing well over $100 million at the domestic box office. In fact, the two previous Chipmunks films and the first Sherlock Holmes made upwards of $200 million in North America alone.

Ghost Protocol opens in hundreds of IMAX (NASDAQ:IMAX) theaters this weekend in advance of its wide release on December 21. Paramount is using the sneaks to build buzz among diehard fans in advance of the movie’s official debut. Ghost Protocol could gross $5 million to $7 million as it opens this weekend on 300 IMAX screens and 125 large format screens.

Sherlock Holmes returns this weekend with the inimitable Robert Downey Jr. playing the madcap detective himself, while Jude Law plays his cynical sidekick, Dr. Watson. Action, comedy, mystery, and drama all rolled into one, the Robert Downey Jr. vehicle is widely expected to rule the weekend with a gross in the $40 million to $50 million range. The original Sherlock Holmes opened to $62.3 million, given a slight advantage by its Christmas Day debut. The week between Christmas and New Year’s is one of the busiest of the year at the box office.

Fox is is being conservative with its estimate for Chip-Wrecked. While the first Alvin and the Chipmunks debuted to $44.3 million on the same weekend in 2007, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel debuted to 448.9 million on December 23, 2009, Fox is predicting a more modest opening for Chip-Wrecked in the mid- to high-$20 million range.

Jason Reitman’s dark comedy Young Adult, starring Charlize Theron, will expand its theater count from just eight to 985 this weekend. Screenwriter Diablo Cody — who teamed with Reitman on Juno — partners with the director again on a film that the Hollywood Reporter is calling a “well acted, but narrowly conceived story about a deluded author of teen novels who plots to win back her high school boyfriend,” who just happens to to be married with kids. Paramount is expecting between $3 million and $4 million this weekend, but Theron’s Golden Globe nomination for her role in the film could give ticket sales an extra boost.

The Weinstein Company’s silent black-and-white comedy The Artist, as well as Fox Searchlight’s (NASDAQ:NWSA) George Clooney-starrer The Descendants might also get a boost in ticket sales this weekend, as both were nominated for Golden Globes yesterday, and are considered the frontrunners in their respective categories: Best Motion Picture Comedy or Musical, and Best Motion Picture Drama. In fact, The Artist was nominated for six Golden Globes, while The Descendants was nominated for five.

Paramount’s Hugo and the Weinstein Company’s My Week With Marilyn are also poised to benefit from their Globe nominations as they continue in select theaters this weekend, while Focus Features’ Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Fox Searchlight’s Shame, both snubbed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association yesterday, could also do well as they expand into more locations.

Sony Pictures Classics (NYSE:SNE) will open Roman Polanski’s Carnage in five theaters this weekend. The film stars Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, and Christoph Waltz as two sets of parents who, after their sons are involved in a fight, hold a cordial meeting that quickly devolves into chaos as their behavior becomes increasingly more childish.