There was definitely a heat wave at the box office this weekend as "Ice Age: The Meltdown" brought in an estimated $70.5 million -- easily $20 million more than anyone had predicted -- with families packing theaters to see the continuing adventures of Manny the woolly mammoth, Sid the sloth, Diego the saber-tooth tiger and, of course, the squirrelly Scrat.
"This is completely out of the ballpark, beyond my expectations," director Carlos Saldanha said Sunday from his home in Hoboken, N.J. "They called me Friday night, and when I heard the number, I couldn't believe it."
"Meltdown," the first time Saldanha's been solo in the director's chair (he co-directed "Ice Age" and "Robots"), delivered the best opening weekend at the box office this year. It is the top March opening ever, and if estimates hold up when more complete figures become available today it will rank as second-highest opening weekend for an animated film behind "Shrek 2," which made $108 million over three days in May 2004.
Although the reviews of the film were mixed, the marketing by Fox was supersaturated, including a clip on "American Idol" -- the finalists on the Fox TV hit went to a screening and raved -- and a bit written into an episode of "The Family Guy," one of Fox's animated series.
Series creator Seth MacFarlane "integrated Scrat into an episode of 'Family Guy' that had a sequence where Scrat interacted with Peter," the title char-acter, said Chris Meledandri, president of 20th Century Fox Animation. "It only worked, organically, because it was Seth's concept.
"There were a number of interstitials and 'Ice Age' logos on the Fox network and [the TV stations Fox owns and operates] and the affiliates too," he said. "There wasn't a section of the company that didn't participate."
"HarperCollins," which is also owned by Fox News Corp., "has about 10 books related to the film," and the home video division re-released the first movie.
Families dominated the audience, but a sizable chunk -- nearly a third -- were not families, even at matinees, said Bruce Snyder, president of distribution at 20th Century Fox. Audience surveys conducted from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday found that 68% were families, Snyder said, but "32% of people in those theaters were non-family audiences."
Saturday night, "I went to Century City at about 9," said Meledandri. "I wish I could tell you it was all adults, but it was about 95% adults and 5% kids."
For director Saldanha, it's time to take a breather. "It's the third movie in a row," he said. "Once you start, it's like a marathon. You work every day nonstop, three years of pressure."
Saldanha moved from Brazil to New York in 1991 and majored in computer science, but "I came because I always wanted to do something related to art." In addition to computers, he loved to paint and draw. "I came to New York to the School of Visual Arts and instantly discovered the easiest way to express myself was through animation."
"At the same time, one of my teachers was Chris Wedge," who ran Blue Sky Studios, which had not yet done "Ice Age," and "I did a short in school called 'Time for Love.' One thing leads to the next and I've been at Blue Sky ever since." Wedge voiced the "Ice Age" character Scrat.
Saldanha's wife, Isabela Scarpa, a mathematician, elected to stay home with their young daughters, whom the director managed to work into the movie. Their character is a porcupine-like critter called a "molehog," and Manoelo, 8, and Sofia, 5, shared two lines that were split between them.
Saldanha may be taking a break, but not Meledandri.
Fox has attached a teaser trailer that runs just before "Meltdown" promoting another animated movie for which the studio has high hopes: "The Simpsons Movie," opening July 27, 2007.
Meanwhile, moviegoers apparently decided they had seen enough of Sharon Stone the first time around, and "Basic Instinct 2" tied with "Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector" for No. 10 with an estimated $3.2 million.
"ATL," however, a movie about kids in Atlanta and the roller-skating rink where they let loose, opened at No. 3 with an estimated $12.5 million, attracting an audience that was 78% African American, 75% under 25 and 56% female.
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Preliminary results (in millions) based on studio projections.
*--* Movie 3-day gross Total Ice Age: The Meltdown $70.5 $70.5
Inside Man 15.7 52.8
ATL 12.5 12.5
Failure to Launch 6.6 73.2
V for Vendetta 6.5 56.8
Stay Alive 4.6 17.3
She's the Man 4.6 26.8
Slither 3.7 3.7
The Shaggy Dog 3.5 53.8
Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector 3.2 11.5
Basic Instinct 2 3.2 3.2 Source: Nielsen EDI Inc. Los Angeles Times