With strong debuts by two other new releases - the horror picture "Resident Evil" at No. 2 and police spoof "Showtime" at No. 3 - and solid results from holdovers, it seemed there was a film for every taste.
"Ice Age" led the way with $47.9 million since its March 15 bow, smashing the old three-day record for a March release -- $31.4 million for Jim Carrey's "Liar Liar" in 1997. It becomes the third best animated opening of all time after "Monsters, Inc." ($62.6 million) and "Toy Story 2" ($57.4 million).
Budgeted in the high $50 million range, "Ice Age" ends a jinx for its distributor Twentieth Century Fox, whose efforts to break the cartoon dominance of Walt Disney Co. and closely held DreamWorks SKG resulted in the middling "Anastasia" and the disastrous "Titan A.E."
Set during a deep freeze 20,000 years ago, "Ice Age" features a woolly mammoth voiced by Ray Romano, a sloth (John Leguizamo) and a saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) who form an unlikely band returning a human baby to its tribe.
Going into the weekend, Fox had forecast an opening in the $30 million range, said Bruce Snyder, president of distribution at the Fox Entertainment Inc.-owned studio.
Families accounted for 70 percent of the audience. But the studios did not ignore other demographics. Youngsters rushed to "Resident Evil" (Screen Gems), a horror picture based on a popular video game, which scared up $18.2 million. Older fans made time for "Showtime" (Warner Bros.), a comedy starring Robert De Niro and Eddie Murphy, which collared $15.4 million.
Last week's champion, the time-travel adventure "The Time Machine" (DreamWorks), fell to No. 4 with $10.9 million, while Mel Gibson's Vietnam War saga "We Were Warriors" (Paramount) dropped to No. 5 with $8.8 million in its third round.
According to box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations, the top 12 films grossed $124.2 million, up 49 percent from last weekend, and up 71 percent from the year-ago period when "Exit Wounds" opened at No. 1 with $18.5 million. The last time receipts were this high was the holiday-boosted Dec. 28-30 weekend, when the top 12 tallied $147 million.
Fox also had a good weekend in the limited-release arena, as the lesbian romance "Kissing Jessica Stein" pulled in $355,000 from 26 theaters in six cities. The comedy, released by its Fox Searchlight unit, will add cities over the next few weeks before going national in 400-500 theaters on April 5.
Budgeted at under $1 million, the independently made film revolves around a woman who switches teams when she tires of meeting ineligible men. Its themes of loneliness and friendship resonated with women of all persuasions, said Steve Gilula, president of distribution at Fox Searchlight.
Among the major debuts, the numbers for zombie thriller "Resident Evil" were boosted by actresses Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez, who drew young women to a film that ordinarily would be dominated by males, said Jeff Blake, president of distribution at Sony Pictures Entertainment, the Sony Corp.-owned parent of Screen Gems.
Sony acquired North American distribution rights from its German producer, Constantin Film, which is moving ahead with a sequel, said Mitch Horwits, president of Constantin's U.S.-based unit.
The bow for "Showtime" was on target, said Dan Fellman, president of distribution at Warner Bros., a unit of AOL Time Warner Inc. The film, which cost over $50 million, pulled in an audience that was 60 percent over 25 years. De Niro and Murphy play two real-life cops enlisted to play themselves as a TV crew follows them on their rounds.
After 10 days in release, the adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" has earned $40.1 million. Directed by Wells' great-grandson, Simon Wells, it stars Australian actor Guy Pearce and Irish pop singer Samantha Mumba. The sci-fi film lost a hefty 52 percent of its audience.
One week before of the Academy Awards in Hollywood, the top 10 contained only one best picture nominee, "A Beautiful Mind" at No. 9. The Russell Crowe drama earned $3.4 million, as its 87-day total rose to $149.2 million. It was released by Universal Pictures, a unit of Vivendi Universal SA.
Leading Oscar nominee "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" (New Line) fell one spot to No. 11 with $2.1 million and a 89-day haul of $294.3 million. "Rings" has 13 nominations, while "Mind" has eight, tied with "Moulin Rouge," which is available on home video.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at North American theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. .
1. "Ice Age," $47.9 million.
2. "Resident Evil," $18.2 million.
3. "Showtime," $15.4 million.
4. "The Time Machine," $10.9 million.
5. "We Were Soldiers," $8.8 million.
6. "All About the Benjamins," $4.9 million.
7. "40 Days and 40 Nights," $4.6 million.
8. "John Q," $3.7 million.
9. "A Beautiful Mind," $3.4 million.
10. "Return to Never Land," $2.3 million.