Early start to July 4 frame

Can DreamWorks and Paramount transform a toy-based vehicle into a B.O. titan?

They face a daunting challenge as “Transformers” bows today on 4,011 screens, before a holiday when the public may be more interested in fireworks and picnics than movies.

Independence Day is a frequent Hollywood favorite for opening films, though it’s tricky when the holiday falls midweek. But the tracking on the pic is strong and audience awareness high, thanks partly to a slew of product tie-ins.

Plus, DreamWorks and Par are going for the full week, meaning a 6½-day opening tally. While “Transformers” officially bows today, it started playing Monday night at 8 p.m..

Also trying to maximize ticket sales over the holiday frame is Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow, which opens laffer “License to Wed” on 2,401 screens. The film, starring Robin Williams, Mandy Moore and John Krasinski, will add some 200 extra theaters on Friday.

And the Weinstein Co. expands Michael Moore’s docu “Sicko” today into an additional 200 venues, bringing the total to 661.

Hollywood expects “Transformers” to be the big crowd-pleaser, though Par is working hard to manage expectations.

Initially, some thought the movie, directed by Michael Bay and exec produced by Steven Spielberg, would be a kiddie pic, since it’s based on the popular Hasbro robot toy line of the same name.

Par and DreamWorks, which need a live-action franchise, aren’t just selling it to boys, though, and intend the pic to appeal to all four quadrants. They have waged an intense marketing campaign, not to mention all the product tie-ins.

“Transformers” was originally set to open July 4, in keeping with the tradition of a five-day holiday opening. But when Warners moved “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” from July 13 to July 11, Par moved up the “Transformers” date to July 3. Then came the idea of beginning the movie’s run on Monday evening to build buzz.

Warners likewise moved up the release of “License to Wed” from July 4 to July 3.

Traditionally, the Fourth of July frame doesn’t enjoy the sort of eye-popping numbers that other holidays see. Bay’s “Armageddon” opened at about $36 million over the July Fourth weekend in 1998, with a five-day total of over $50 million.

Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” and “Spider-Man 2″ are two exceptions. For its five-day opening, “War of the Worlds” took in roughly $100.4 million, $64.8 million of which came in on the weekend; “Spider-Man 2″ posted a five-day cume of $145.3 million, including a weekend take of $81.1 million.

“Transformers” will be unique in having essentially a seven-day opening number.

Many believe the pic has an easy shot at crossing the $100 million mark domestically — some put it at a great deal higher — for the 6½ days, but inside the studio execs point out that it is an original film and not a sequel.

On Monday, Par and DreamWorks celebrated early overseas box office numbers for “Transformers,” which has already bowed in a few territories. Execs upped the international weekend number by $1.6 million to $36.2 million at 2,133 venues in 10 markets for a stellar per-screen average of $16,980.

On the domestic front, 20th Century Fox’s “Live Free or Die Hard,” which opened last Wednesday, faces the most direct competition from “Transformers.”

Disney-Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” which came in No. 1 over the weekend, could lose some kids to Bay’s actioner.

On July 4, MGM opens Werner Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn” on five screens in Gotham and Los Angeles.

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