And the weekend's two new releases both significantly underperformed.
New Line's "New Year's Eve," a PG-13-rated ensemble comedy featuring many of the biggest stars in Hollywood, grossed only $13.7 million, according to studio estimates.
Even with that disappointing number -- the studio had expected the movie would debut to $20 million -- "New Year's Eve" was No. 1 at the domestic box office.
Fox's R-rated Jonah Hill comedy "The Sitter" had a similarly weak opening, taking in only about $10 million.
The overall box office was down about 20 percent compared to the same weekend last year -- and down about 7 percent compared to last weekend.
It is the worst weekend since Sept. 19-21, 2008, when total domestic box office revenue only came in at $67.8 million, said Chris Aronson, senior VP for domestic distribution at Fox.
Warner Bros. distribution president Dan Fellman added, "It's just a very difficult box office."
Compared to last year at this time, overall revenue is down 3.8 percent and attendance is off 4.71 percent, according to Hollywood.com's Paul Dergarabedian.
"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1," which had propped up the box office since its release Nov. 18, grossed $7.9 million over the weekend. That was enough to put Summit's PG-13 werewolves and vampires movie at No. 3.
Domestically, it's made $259.5 million so far.
The bright spot was among specialty releases. Focus Features' "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" grossed $300,737 at four locations, for an impressive per-location average of around $75,000.
In all, though, it was a bleak weekend for the movie business.
In its third week of release, the GK Films/Paramount movie "Hugo" expanded to 2,608 locations, but took in just $6.1 million and received a "B-plus" score from the audience survey company Cinemascore. The Martin Scorsese movie, which was shot for around $170 million, has grossed just $33.5 million since debuting over Thanksgiving weekend.
Looking forward, distribution executives believe the market will perk up in the next few weeks as a flurry of big tentpoles hit multiplexes.
"It's a product mix situation that I think is going to be rectified," Fox's Aronson said.
Aronson predicted that movies like "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol," "We Bought a Zoo," "War Horse," "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Adventures of Tintin" -- "are going to hit on all cylinders."
"You just have to hope that these coming weekends, when the big guns open -- both 'Mission Impossible' and 'Sherlock Holmes' -- the box office will spin around."
For now, though, New Line and Fox are hoping their movies can hold onto some kind of audience.
"New Year's Eve," which cost an estimated $56 million to make, received a "B-plus" grade from Cinemascore.
The movie, directed by Garry Marshall, stars Michelle Pfeiffer, Zac Efron, Robert De Niro, Halle Berry, Seth Meyers, Alyssa Milano, Jessica Biel and others. Women saw the movie in far higher numbers than men. Fellman said 70 percent of the audience was made up of women.
It is a follow-up to Marshall's 2010 hit "Valentine's Day," which also featured big stars in short vignettes and went on to gross $216.5 million on a $52 million budget.
Fellman said the movie is the only romantic comedy in release, and that he hopes it will attract moviegoers throughout the holiday season.
"You have good exit and you have good holiday playtime coming up, so you hope you'll hold up well as you get closer to the very lucrative holiday playtime," he said. "Just hope you get a good multiple off it."
Aronson said he expected "The Sitter," which stars Jonah Hill, to perform about where it did. And he noted that it is the only new R-rated comedy at theaters.
"There aren't any comedies coming, are there?" he asked. "So that bodes well, and I think we'll play as college kids, who are certainly one of our primary target audiences, continue to get out of school."
The movie, produced for a figure in the low $20 million range, had a weak Cinemascore rating of "C-plus."
The audience that did turn out to see "The Sitter" was evenly split between men and women. It skewed slightly older: 53 percent of audience members were 25 and older.