Woolly bully at B.O.

Mammoth bow for Fox toon 'Ice Age' thaws huge frame

Auds were hot for 20th Century Fox’s “Ice Age,” as the CGI-toon laffer topped weekend box office with an estimated $47.9 million bow — March’s best ever.

Sony Screen Gems’ vidgame-adaptation “Resident Evil,” though far back in second place, well exceeded expectations with an estimated $18.2 million opening. But Warners Bros.’ buddy-cop laffer “Showtime” underwhelmed at $15.4 million, with Eddie Murphy/Robert De Niro starrer landing third.

Industrywide, frame was a stunner, with estimated grosses totaling $141 million — 66% higher than the same sesh in 2001. Year-to-date, 2002 is now 9% ahead of the same period of last year at a total $1.69 billion, according to data from B.O. tracker ACNielsen EDI.

Elsewhere this weekend, soph-seshers “The Time Machine” from DreamWorks and “All About the Benjamins” from New Line finished fourth and sixth, respectively, with estimated tallies of $10.9 million and $4.9 million. Paramount’s “We Were Soldiers” landed fifth in its third frame, with $8.8 million.

A CGI shift

The success of “Ice Age” underscores a growing bifurcation in feature tooners, with traditional animation increasingly limited to younger-skewing pics.

“CGI has replaced traditional animation for all-audience movies,” Fox Films Entertainment chairman Tom Rothman observed.

“Ice Age” was produced for an estimated $58 million in the Harrison, N.Y., facilities of Fox’s wholly owned Blue Sky Studios under helmer Chris Wedge.

Fox sees Wedge as its John Lassiter — the well-known creative force behind Disney/Pixar tooners — and he’s certainly off to a good start. The “Ice Age” bow is the second biggest ever for a tooner, behind Disney/Pixar’s “Monster’s Inc.” ($62.6 million) and ahead of DreamWorks’ “Shrek” ($42.3 million).

But until now, Fox tread a difficult tooner path.

Studio suffered through disappointing releases like “Anastasia,” a family tooner that grossed only $58.4 million in its entire domestic run. And it spent lavishly to construct a state-of-the-art trad-tooner facility in Phoenix that’s since been shuttered.

Suddenly, all that’s ancient history: The “Ice Age” opening was half again as big as the rosiest pre-release projections, and an “Ice Age” sequel already appears likely. More imminently, Blue Sky is developing a still-untitled feature tooner.

Fox execs said the use of popular thesps Ray Romano, Dennis Leary and John Leguizamo as voice actors on “Ice Age” helped broaden pic’s appeal beyond the family crowd.

“It became an event,” Fox distrib topper Bruce Snyder said. “It wasn’t just the family. We also got teenagers.”

“Flowers” starts slowly

Among limited openings, Universal Focus’ Andie McDowell starrer “Harrison’s Flowers” bloomed in 398 theaters, plucking $844,000, or $2,120 per venue. Drama, in which topliner plays the wife of a missing war photojournalist, was an $8 million production acquired from affiliate Studio Canal.

But if that limited release proved a slow starter — despite overlap with recent current events — another couple specialty pics made good use of early buzz and rave reviews.

IFC’s Spanish-lingo “Y Tu Mama Tambien” unspooled in 37 L.A. locations and three Gotham sites to gross $435,159, or an impressive $10,879 per engagement. Unrated drama adds 20 additional markets April 5.

And Fox Searchlight’s romantic comedy “Kissing Jessica Stein” bowed with 26 engagements in six markets, grossing $355,000, or a stimulating $13,650 per playdate. Pic expands into additional markets each of the next couple frames en route to amassing 400-500 runs by April 5.

Miramax’s “Iris” biopic added five theaters this weekend for a total 141 and grossed $420,000, or $2,978 per venue, for a $3.1 million cume. And distrib’s “Italian for Beginners” laffer added two engagements for a total 81 in grossing $275,000, or $3,395 per playdate, and reached a $2.5 million cume.

Vid pic clicks

“Resident Evil,” toplined by Milla Jovovich (“Zoolander”) and Michelle Rodriguez (“Girlfight”), was a $30 million production funded through an ongoing pact between Sony and Constantin Film.

“Fans in the video gaming community felt the film is a very faithful adaptation of the game,” Constantin’s Mitch Horowitz said. “And fans in the thriller/horror genre liked the film as well. So, we were able to get both males and females to see the picture.”

“Showtime,” which crix hit as formulaic, skewed 51% female, with 60% of auds over age 25. Pic’s production costs, believed well north of $60 million, were split evenly between Warners and co-prod partner Village Roadshow.

Disney offered 1,151 sneaks of its “The Rookie” — a Dennis Quaid starrer skedded to bow March 29. The 80% capacity auds skewed 53% male, with 90% of patrons rating family drama “excellent,” distrib said.

Three pics debut wide next weekend, including U’s 20th-anniversary release of Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” Also unspooling are Mouse House’s “Sorority Boys” laffer and New Line’s action sequel “Blade 2.”

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