Audiences chow down on ‘Ratatouille’

'Die Hard' snacks on leftovers for second spot

Disney-Pixar’s “Ratatouille” simmered its way to No. 1 at the domestic box office, taking in an estimated $47.2 million from 3,940 venues.

Toon wasn’t the only new pic moviegoers feasted on as they got into the July Fourth holiday spirit. Fox’s “Live Free or Die Hard” took No. 2 with an estimated weekend take of $33.2 million and a five-day cume of $48.2 million from 3,408 engagements.

And Michael Moore’s docu “Sicko” enjoyed excellent health, racking up an estimated $4.5 million from 441 venues in the second-highest opening for a docu after Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” according to the Weinstein Co. Offering some counterprogramming, Focus Features’ female drama “Evening” debuted at No. 10 with an estimated $3.5 million from 977.

Universal’s pricey laffer “Evan Almighty” fell off 52% in its second frame, making $15.1 million from 3,636 venues and upping cume to $60.6 million. Conversely, U’s racier comedy “Knocked Up” dropped only 32% in its fifth frame, pulling in an estimated $7.4 million from 2,678 venues for a new cume of $122.4 million. Pic was No. 6.

As the holiday gets under way, bigger titles like “Live Free” or “Ratatouille” will have to contend with DreamWorks and Paramount’s actioner “Transformers,” which begins playing Monday night before officially opening Tuesday. But Fox and Disney say their respective films enjoyed glowing exit polls — as did “Sicko” — thus providing some cushion.

Disney distribution prexy Chuck Viane said the decision to open “Ratatouille” during such a crowded frame was worth the risk in order to capitalize on the Fourth of July holiday, which falls on a Wednesday, meaning many people are opting to take at least part of the week off, if not all of it.

“We wanted a big, fat date to maximize the movie. This is all about a 10-day plan,” Viane said. “When the picnic tables fill up this week, people will be talking about ‘Ratatouille.'”

That’s why Disney isn’t too worried, at least publicly, over the “Ratatouille” opening, which didn’t rack up numbers as good as the bow for the last five Pixar films. Wall Street’s reaction, however, remains to be seen.

Last year, analysts were nervous when “Cars” opened at $60.1 million, well below the $70.5 million and $70.2 million that “The Incredibles” and “Finding Nemo” scored, respectively. Indeed, analysts questioned the wisdom of Disney’s decision to buy Pixar Animation Studios for $7.4 billion. “Ratatouille” is the first release since Pixar went to Disney.

“Cars” ended up grossing $244 million domestically, underscoring that family-friendly toons are steady but profitable builders. Warner Bros.’ “Happy Feet” opened at $41.5 million before going on to gross $198 million domestically. “Ice Age” opened at $46.3 million, ultimately grossing $176.4 million. Most Pixar titles have crossed the $200 million mark domestically, with “Nemo” scoring $339 million. “Bug’s Life,” which opened at $33.3 million, made $162.8 domestically.

Among 2007 summer toons, “Ratatouille” may not have debuted to “Shrek the Third” numbers, but it did far better than Sony’s “Surf’s Up,” which opened at $17.6 million.

According to Disney, “Ratatouille” actually exceeded expectations in terms of its opening take, acknowledging that it’s not easy marketing a rat as a lovable character.

Fox, meanwhile, had to persuade the younger set, and particular young men, to give “Live Free” a chance, since they’re too young to remember the “Die Hard” action franchise, which catapulted Willis to stardom as John McClane. The first pic bowed in 1988, the third in 1995.

Studio distrib execs say “Live Free,” which scored a bigger B.O. opening than the three previous installments, appealed to all four quadrants. Bow also marked Willis’ best opening since Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” in 1998.

“People love John McClane. He’s an Everyman,” said Fox senior VP of domestic distribution and general sales manager Bert Livingston. “It’s old-fashioned entertainment.”

The Weinstein Co. and Moore faced the difficult task of marketing a docu about health care, hardly a sexy topic. Yet they managed to pull it off, with Moore — his own household brand — once again tapping into the political zeitgeist and railing against big business and the Bush administration.

“Sicko,” Moore’s seventh film, enjoyed a muscle-bound per-screen average of $10,204 over the weekend. Although the doc played one exclusive engagement in Gotham the previous weekend, TWC is calling this past weekend the official opening. Lionsgate is distributing for TWC; TWC and Lionsgate will expand “Sicko” into an additional 200 theaters on July 3.

“It’s terrific. Most documentaries have grossed about $1 million when they open. We beat all the projections,” TWC co-chair Harvey Weinstein told Daily Variety.

By going into 441 theaters — an unusual pattern — TWC is trying to minimize its media buying so that it can build word of mouth and play the docu longer in theaters.

While Moore and TWC have succeeded in getting auds interested in political or cultural subjects, Paramount Vantage is struggling to find a broad enough aud for Angelina Jolie starrer “A Mighty Heart,” which tells the story of journalist Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded by extremists when researching a story on Al Qaeda after 9/11. “Mighty Heart” slipped from No. 10 to No. 14 in its second frame, taking in $1.5 million from 1,350 engagements, a disappointing per-screen average of $1,154. Film’s total take is $7 million.

Among other prestige titles, ThinkFilm’s docu “Ghosts of Cite Soleil” took in an estimated $7,400 from one engagement in New York, bringing the film’s five-day cume to $10,020.

Enjoying a per-screen average of $4,053 in its second frame was “You Kill Me,” which IFC Films played in 41 venues. Cume is $503,144.

Picturehouse’s “La Vie en rose” remained strong in its fourth frame, taking in $612,380 from 142 venues for a per-screen average of 4,313. Cume is now $4.9 million.

Holdovers dominated the rest of the top 10.

Coming in at No. 3 was Dimension horror title “1408,” taking an estimated $10.6 million from 2,733 engagements in its second frame and lifting cume to $40.4 million.

Fox’s “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” came in at No. 5 in its third session with an estimated $9 million from 3,424 venues. Cume is $114.8 million.

Crossing the $100 million mark over the weekend was Warner Bros.’ “Ocean’s Thirteen,” which came in at No. 7; cume is now $102 million.

Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” also celebrated a milestone. Tentpole crossed the $900 million mark at the worldwide box office, becoming the biggest release of 2007 with $904.7 million in global ticket sales. In the U.S., “Pirates” came in at No. 8, with an estimated take of $5 million; domestic cume is $295.8 million.