Wild and woolly weekend

'Ice's' $71 mil thaws B.O. chill

“Ice Age: The Meltdown” heated up the moribund box office, as Fox’s CGI sequel bowed to a boffo $70.5 million.

It’s the second biggest opening ever for a non-summer, non-holiday season release, behind only “The Passion of the Christ.” Based on weekend estimate, “Ice Age” sequel — from Fox’s Blue Sky animation studio — is in a virtual tie with “The Incredibles” and “Finding Nemo” for the second largest animation debut ever, following “Shrek 2.”

Awesome perf cut the year’s B.O. deficit in half; 2006 box office receipts are now just 1% behind 2005.

Overall, the weekend was up 32% from a year ago, when “Sin City” led the B.O. with $29.1 million.

Among other openers, “ATL” opened to a surprisingly strong $12.5 million, while “Slither” and “Basic Instinct 2” both had grim bows in the low single digits. “Brick” did boffo biz in its limited preem.

“Ice Age” sequel’s performance was more than 50% bigger than the original, which bowed in mid-March four years ago. Despite hitting 20% more theaters, “Meltdown’s” per-play average was 27% bigger than the original: $17,785 at 3,964 locations.

A healthy 32% of auds were non-family, giving the pic a broader play than many toons.

“To be in the rarefied air of the best Pixar openings and to do it in March is really remarkable,” boasted an ebullient Fox distrib prexy Bruce Snyder. “It’s especially hard to get such a high per-screen average when you’re at almost 4,000 theaters, which means you’re going into very small towns.”

Pic benefited from promotion throughout News Corp., including on the Fox network’s “American Idol” and on the front page of MySpace.com.

Fox Animation topper Chris Meledandri confirmed that with the success of “Meltdown,” a third “Ice Age” will quickly move into active development.

Drawing a largely young, non-white aud, hip-hop-themed “ATL” averaged a healthy $7,831 per theater at 1,602 locations. It’s a rare low-budget urban pic for Warner Bros.

Defying what has been a strong year for low-budget horror pics, “Slither” oozed its way to only $3.7 million, averaging $1,890 at 1,945 playdates. U distribbed for Gold Circle.

Auds clearly didn’t think “Basic Instict 2” was worth the 14-year wait, as the sequel grossed just $3.2 million, or about 20% of what the original bowed to in 1992. Pic was distribbed by Sony for financiers including MGM and Intermedia.

U’s “Inside Man” had a so-so hold, dropping 46% in its second frame to $15.7 million, landing it in second place. Spike Lee-helmed thriller had a per-play average of $5,545 at 2,830 theaters. Cume is $52.8 million.

Focus bowed high school noir “Brick” to a spectacular $43,762 per play, grossing $87,524 at two theaters in Gotham and L.A. Sundance favorite expands to about 20 playdates Friday.

That’s the second biggest per-play performance of the year, behind only”Thank You for Smoking,” which more than doubled its theater count to 126 in its third frame and kept up its winning ways, average $13,294. Weekend gross was $1.68 million; cume is now $3.4 million. Fox Searchlight expands the satire to around 300 playdates Friday before giving “Smoking” its widest run of around 600 on April 14.

IFC debuted “Drawing Restraint 9” to a very strong $19,214 on one screen at IFC Center in Gotham. Cume for Matthew Barney’s Bjork starrer since Wednesday debut is $28,590.

Sony Pictures Classics’ docu “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” bowed to a so-so $5,145 per play at five locations, for a total gross of $25,726.

Samuel Goldwyn Films debuted romantic comedy “Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School” at 38 playdates and grossed $114,000, or a mediocre $3,000 per play. Marisa Tomei/Robert Carlyle starrer hits 10 more markets Friday.

Foreign-language Oscar winner “Tsotsi” added 39 plays and averaged a weak $2,446 at 120 theaters, the widest Miramax plans to take it. Weekend gross was $294,000 and cume for the South African import is a healthy $1.6 million.

“Lonesome Jim” didn’t make many friends as IFC expanded it from two to 15 playdates and pic averaged just $1,825. Weekend gross was $27,384 and cume is $45,857.