Will ‘Ice Age’ heat up cold B.O?

'Meltdown' begins march of the toons

The 2006 tentpole season has begun.

Today’s bow of Fox’s CG toon sequel “Ice Age: The Meltdown” kicks off this year’s slate of event films that studios hope will reverse the ongoing box office slump.

Original “Ice Age” grossed $46.3 million in its March opening frame four years ago, and Fox is undoubtedly aiming to beat that performance.

Other pics bowing this weekend, all with much more modest B.O. ambitions, include WB’s hip-hop-themed “ATL”; horror film “Slither,” which U is distribbing for Gold Circle; and the long-awaited “Basic Instinct 2,” which Sony is handling in the U.S.

“Ice Age” hits an ultrawide 3,963 playdates, giving it more upside potential over original’s 3,316.

While several smaller toons have already opened — with “Hoodwinked” and “Curious George” doing solid biz, “Doogal” not — “Meltdown” marks the beginning of a 2006 spree that will feature big-budget CG toons from every major except Universal.

In an early sign of how these pics could eat into each other, “Ice Age” will have the family animation market to itself for only two weeks before Disney bows “The Wild” on April 14.

Studio regularly uses March to bow toons from its CG subsid Blue Sky. Last year’s entry, “Robot,” opened to a more modest $36 million. Anything close to that would be disappointing for the “Ice Age” sequel.

Fox has retained foreign rights on “Ice Age 2,” which is opening mostly in Spanish-speaking markets this weekend including Mexico and Spain, along with Belgium, Brazil, Poland, Russia and Sweden. It will launch in France, Germany and the U.K. next weekend.

In 2002 “Ice Age” took in foreign box office of $206 million, $30 million more than its domestic gross.

Among other openers, “ATL” is showing the most potential to break out, tracking very well with young men. Star T.I. also has an album out this week, which should help at the box office, where pic’s hitting 1,602 theaters.

Gross in the high-single digits is very doable, with the potential to break out into the mid-teens.

“Slither” bows at 1,943 and looks likely to land single digits. However, several horror films have opened bigger than expected this winter, and an opening similar to the $10.7 million “Stay Alive” drew last frame is quite possible.

“Basic Instinct 2” bows at just 1,453 theaters and is showing only a little interest in tracking among older femmes. Original film 14 years ago opened to $15.1 million — with mid-single digits much more likely this time around.

Sequel opens this weekend in most major foreign markets including Australia, France, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Spain and the U.K. Foreign rights have been sold to a wide variety of distribs — Fox in Australia and New Zealand, OF in France, Constantin in Germany, Cinema Service in Korea and Warner in Italy and Spain.

Original “Basic Instinct” grossed $235 million overseas in 1992, doubling its domestic take.

Both the “Ice Age” and “Instinct” sequels could energize what’s been lukewarm foreign biz in recent weeks, with “V for Vendetta” sparkling only moderate interest and no film having reached $15 million in a weekend since “Munich” opened. “The Pink Panther” has won three straight frames for Fox, pushing its foreign gross to about $65 million.

“V for Vendetta,” which has grossed around $20 million overseas, opens in Australia. “Failure to Launch” launches in the U.K.

In limited release domestically, ThinkFilm bows Beastie Boys fan-directed concert pic “Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That!” at 18 theaters.

Sony Pictures Classics puts docu “The Devil & Daniel Johnston” at six playdates in New York and L.A.

Focus bows Sundance favorite “Brick” at two plays in Gotham and L.A.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)