LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - George Clooney outgunned his rivals at the Labor Day holiday weekend box office in North America with a low-caliber opening for his assassin drama "The American," as the lucrative summer moviegoing season wound down on a traditionally weak note.
According to studio estimates issued on Sunday, "The American" earned $13 million during the three-day period beginning September 3; its tally stands at $16.1 million since Wednesday, when it got a two-day head-start on the competition.
The opening is slightly better than industry forecasts, but is similar to that of his 2008 flop "Leatherheads," which ended its brief run with $31.3 million.
The film, in which Clooney plays a stone-faced gun enthusiast holed up in a picturesque Italian town, was directed by rock photographer Anton Corbijn. It was released by Focus Features, the art-house unit of General Electric Co's NBC Universal.
Also new were 20th Century Fox's violent fantasy "Machete" at No. 3 with $11.3 million, and Warner Bros.' Drew Barrymore romantic comedy "Going the Distance" at No. 5 with just $6.9 million. Both opened on Friday.
"Machete," a bloody homage to 1970s B-movies using the immigration debate as a backdrop, stars character actor Danny Trejo as a Mexican assassin with a penchant for dispatching people with sharp objects. Robert Rodriguez directed with Ethan Maniquis. Fox said the audience was 60 percent Latino.
"Going the Distance" stars Barrymore and Justin Long as bi-coastal lovers. It is the latest in a string of rom-com flops for the actress, including "Lucky You," "Music and Lyrics" and "Fever Pitch."
Last weekend's champion, the Screen Gems heist drama "Takers," slipped to No. 2 with $11.5 million, taking its 10-day total to $37.9 million.
Sales for the top-12 films fell to their lowest level since the September 11-13 weekend last year, a fitting coda to a summer lineup whose weak performance was obscured by the 3D boom.
While sales from the first weekend in May through Labor Day on Monday are projected to break last year's record, the increase comes solely from higher ticket prices. The number of tickets sold -- a better gauge of Hollywood's health -- hit its lowest level since 1997.
Tracking firm Hollywood.com Box-Office predicted summer attendance would come in at 552 million tickets sold, a 2.6 percent drop from last year, and the lowest since 1997 when 540 million were sold. It forecast summer receipts of $4.35 billion, up 2.4 percent from last summer's record levels.
The top summer films were "Toy Story 3" ($408 million), "Iron Man 2" ($312 million) and "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" ($298 million). Notable bombs included "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore" ($42 million), "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" ($29 million), "The Switch" ($21 million), "Jonah Hex" ($10.5 million) -- and now "Going the Distance."
Movies released in 3D, such as "Toy Story 3," "Cats & Dogs," "Despicable Me," and "The Last Airbender," allowed movie theaters to charge an average premium of $3 per ticket. In some markets, this pushed the ticket price to almost $20. The average ticket price for all movies was $7.88, according to Hollywood.com Box-Office.
Sales are expected to remain weak for the next few weeks as the studios dump their under-performers so that they can focus on prestige pictures catering to awards voters and on holiday-season crowd-pleasers.
Screen Gems is a unit of Sony Corp. 20th Century Fox is a unit of News Corp. Warner Bros. Pictures is a unit of Time Warner Inc.
Reporting by Dean Goodman; editing by Mohammad Zargham