NEW YORK - On a weekend when Hollywood competed with Christmas gatherings and fierce snow storms in the Northeast and Southeast, "Little Fockers" was No. 1 at the box office.
The third installment of the Ben Stiller-Robert De Niro series of in-law comedy was to earn $34 million over the three-day weekend and $48.3 million since opening Wednesday, according to studio estimates yesterday. That was less than the debut of the 2004 sequel, "Meet the Fockers," which opened to $46.1 million, but more than the original, "Meet the Parents," which made $28.6 million in its opening weekend.
It was an overall down weekend for Hollywood, which saw the blockbuster "Gulliver's Travels" open Saturday to a weak two-day gross of $7.2 million, and last week's top film, the 3-D sci-fi sequel "Tron: Legacy," fall more than 54 percent to $20.1 million on the weekend, and a total of $88.3 million.
The big success was the Coen Brothers' "True Grit," which was the No. 2 film of the weekend with a better-than-expected $25.6 million and a five-day gross of $36.8 million. The movie gave Joel and Ethan Coen their best opening weekend ever. The filmmakers' previous top debut was "Burn After Reading," which earned $19 million in its first weekend in 2008.
"Little Fockers," which adds kids to the mix, received overwhelmingly bad reviews but still lured moviegoers.
"These characters are well-loved by audiences," said Eddie Egan, president of marketing at Universal. "It's a very positive result and hopefully a blueprint for success over the next few weeks when the larger moviegoing pool is available."
It wasn't an ideal holiday moviegoing weekend with Christmas Eve falling on a Friday (typically one of the biggest moviegoing nights of the week) and large snowstorms hitting much of the East Coast.
But even those factors aside, the mishmash of critical failures and underperforming blockbusters made it a notably lackluster holiday for Hollywood. It was 45 percent lower than the same weekend last year, when "Avatar" was in its second week of release, along with the premiere of hits like "Sherlock Holmes" and "It's Complicated."
"What a difference a year makes," said Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com. "In terms of the big blockbusters, no way can we live up to last year."
Though Dergarabedian noted that timing and weather were worse this year, he said, "Ultimately, it comes down to the product."
The most remarkable bright spot was the Coen Brothers' authentic adaptation of Charles Portis' 1968 novel and remake of the 1969 film starring John Wayne.
"We've got an out-an-out success," said Don Harris, executive vice president of distribution for Paramount.
Harris credited the early adopted strategy of treating "True Grit" as a "straight commercial venture," accepting whatever critical acclaim as it came. Though the film has received excellent reviews, it was surprisingly snubbed by the Golden Globes.
"People want to be in business with the Coens because of the quality of moviemaking," said Harris, granting that box office isn't typically the Coens' big appeal. "From the beginning, the plan was to make a movie that could play in 3,000 theaters and play in Texas and play in Kansas City, and places the Coen Brothers don't normally open well or open at all."
The success of "True Grit" meant that at 61, Jeff Bridges was an unlikely box-office star, starring in the No. 2 and No. 3 ("Tron: Legacy) movies of the weekend.
With blockbusters failing to dominate the marketplace, the smaller, awards-contending films capitalized on their chance. In 2,511 theaters, Paramount's boxing drama "The Fighter" added $8.8 million to its three-week total of $27.6 million. In 1,466 theaters, Fox Searchlight's psychological thriller "Black Swan" added $6.6 million to its four-week total of $29 million. In seven theaters, Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere" opened to a screen average of more than $20,000.
"This year's crop of specialized, Oscar-caliber films has benefited from the bad reviews of the blockbusters," said Dergarabedian. "They typically say that reviews don't matter, but I think they do this time of year."