If you’ve been following the horse-race over at Nikki Finke’s place, you’ll know it’s been a very long holiday weekend of box office ups and down. However, for those of us who can wait a day or two for the results, it’s actually somewhat simple.

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James Cameron‘s super-expensive 3-D extravaganza for Fox, “Avatar,” emerged as the victor of a three-way battle for the top prize with an outstanding second-weekend estimated take of $75 million and an absolutely minuscule drop from it’s first weekend of 2.6%, according to Box-Office Mojo. The Hollywood conventional wisdom has it that most science fiction films drop by at least 50% on their second weekend. Clearly, this is not most science fiction films and the fact that people are waiting to see this one in 3D and paying extra for the privilege is not hurting. So, as I’ve alluded to often enough, the word of mouth on this thing is something else. However, as always, I await the backlash as some folks plunk down their extra-heavy 3D ticket price and fail to have a religious experience.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson, or some version thereofSecond place, of course, was Guy Ritchie’s unorthodox action-comedy take on probably the oldest genre franchise in the biz, “Sherlock Holmes.” The Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law team-up loosely drawn from the late 19th/early 20th century works of Arthur Conan Doyle defeated “Avatar” and all-comers on its record setting Christmas opening. It then fell a bit and earned a still whopping estimated $65.38 for Warner Brothers, a company that certainly has some experience with franchises. Better yet, this one is in the public domain, which means fewer folks get a share in the wealth.

Fox’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” actually beat “Avatar” by a couple of million on its early opening day last Wednesday, but fell sharply on Christmas Eve and rebounded the rest of the weekend, for a very healthy estimated third place showing of $50.2 million. Critics may detest it; parents may barely tolerate it, but, to paraphrase the old blues song, the little kids understand (or don’t know any better). The film’s total estimated take starting from its early opening is just a tad over $77 million.

Considering it’s a Golden Globe-nominated sex comedy presumably aimed at a very grown-up audience — not only because of the average age of its stars but also because it’s R-rated, Universal’s “It’s Complicated” has generated the critical equivalent of a shrug, with our own David Medsker coming down on the very much negative side. That doesn’t bode extremely well for this sort of movie, which can use all the critical and awards help it can get.

Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in Still, this weekend’s rising tide managed to lift this boat to the tune of an estimated $22 million or so, which is really not bad for this kind of film. Or, it wouldn’t be because Nikki Finke claims the budget was $80 million, which is way high for this kind of movie  and suggests to me that it’s possible stars Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin let their agents negotiate extra-hard for a big pay-day because they were perhaps less than wowed by the film artistically. Universal just doesn’t seem to be cutting itself any breaks lately.

The #5 spot went to one of the two heavily Oscar-touted films that expanded into wide release this weekend. Jason Reitman’s topical darkish comedy, “Up in the Air,” did just well enough that Nikki Finke was apparently forced to control her commercially inspired anti-George Clooney animus.  It earned a solid estimate of $11.7 million for Paramount in just under 1,900 theaters. While Reitman’s free adaptation of a novel by Walter Kirn has more than lived up to its hype in terms of critical praise and awards and nominations so far, “Nine” has been met with a chorus of mild critical disappointment and, despite some Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations and a couple of minor awards, what sure seems to be rapidly declining awards buzz.

Kate Hudson and friends in

That lack of enthusiasm was certainly reflected in its lackluster fiscal performance as it came it in the #8 spot with a somewhat sad per-screen average of $3,902 and an estimated total of just over $5.5 million in just over 1,400 theaters. (For comparison, the “Up in the Air” per screen average was $6,203.) I think the reasons for its failure are obvious enough starting with a vague premise that’s hard for mass audiences to fathom and a show that’s actually not all that well known based on a classic of New Wave Italian cinema that has little awareness outside cinephile and artsy circles. It was clear the Weinstein Company’s marketing department didn’t mind Kate Hudson shaking her perfect but perhaps misnamed moneymaker with “Cinema Italiano,” but would rather forget the film’s relationship to actual Italian cinema.  Add to that no boost from critics or word of mouth and the result is box office disappointment. Simple enough, right?

Not for Finke:

Seriously, who did Harvey [Weinstein] think would be the audience for this very sexy (therefore very heterosexual) musical? Even though it grabbed Golden Globe nominations, it can’t grab an audience which may hurt it come Oscars. What a miscalculation, especially since the Weinsteins put so many other films on hold to focus on it.

For starters, it’s not that the poor box office may hurt it’s Oscars chances, it’s close to a sure thing. As far as I’ve seen, while the notoriously star-struck Golden Globes are one thing, the Academy almost never nominate films in more than a category or two that are neither commercial nor critical successes — you have to be at least one or the other, preferably both. There are exceptions for stand-out elements of an otherwise unimpressive movies such as, say, special effects or a hit song — “Cinema Italiano” is real contender in the best song category, I’m sure. It might even win. Worse songs certainly have.

As for the intimation that Weinstein should keep it gay and a musical with lots of sexy women dancing around is somehow a bad idea commercially because it might turn off the gay male audience — if that’s what Finke really means, I’d really like to know what she’s smoking. The sexy-female centric musical fantasia certainly worked well for Marshall in “Chicago” as it did for Bob Fosse, Busby Berkeley, and many others before him. While the connection between gay men and musicals runs deep, it’s pretty clear that even the worlds’ Roger DeVries-types don’t have a problem with scantily clad females in musicals and are vastly more mature than their straight male brethren about having to view sexiness not of their own preference.

Moreover, there’s another less well known but nearly as avid minority audience for musicals — Jewish people. Maybe the problem is that, being all about Italian people, “Nine” is both too goyish and too hetero to be a hit. Therefore, the new rule is that every musical should be a sequel to “Yentl,” since it involved both Jews and cross-dressing, or maybe it’s time for “La Cage Aux Folles” with Harvey Fierstein, Adam Sandler and the B’nai Brith Men’s Chorus, or possibly a gayed-up musical version of “Inglourious Basterds.”

All I’m saying is this: sometimes movies fail simply because they don’t turn out that great, not because of some gigantic corporate mistake. Nikki needs to remember this is not a business that can be boiled down to easy formulas. Along that path lies madness.

Rants aside, as usual, the largest per-screen average went into a film in highly limited release. This week that was Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnussus,” the final film to star Heath Ledger. While my own review is the very definition of “mixed,” I’m still hopeful for the hugely gifted ex-Python animator to have some improved luck on future films., I’m glad that it may be finding an audience because I want to see that “Don Quixote” movie and lots of other insanity besides.

Heath Ledger in