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Can this sloth save Hollywood?

Sid and his `Ice Age' cohorts are leading the pack of family films that studios hope will help thaw the box office.

April 10, 2006|John Horn and Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writers

FOR months, the film industry thought deliverance from its painful and prolonged box-office slump might come from A-listers such as Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp or Tom Hanks. Instead, the biggest box-office stars these days are a wisecracking woolly mammoth, an insecure sloth and an acorn-obsessed squirrel named Scrat.

In an unexpectedly strong opening, "Ice Age: The Meltdown" grossed $68 million, almost $20 million more than most film executives had projected. Moviegoers are continuing to flock to the animated comedy -- it was No. 1 at the box office again this weekend -- with a total estimated take thus far of $116.4 million. For a business beset by three straight years of declining ticket sales, the PG-rated sequel to 2002's popular "Ice Age" delivered not only 2006's biggest opening, but also gave hope to an armada of family films waiting in the wings, including Pixar's newest, "Cars," and the next installment of the wildly popular "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.

Movie studios tend to shower the lion's share of their production and marketing resources on high-profile action fare, a slate that this year includes "Mission: Impossible III," "Miami Vice" and "The Da Vinci Code." Those pricey summer films may yet generate blockbuster ticket sales, but audiences over the last several months have shown a surprisingly strong interest in movies that have one thing in common: They appeal to families with preteen kids.

"That was the message that was heard loud and clear by Hollywood," Jeff Blake, Sony's chairman of worldwide marketing and distribution, says of the drive toward family films. "Why not get everyone if you can? There's great value in having a picture that can appeal to everyone."

That has certainly proven to be the case in recent months. In addition to "Ice Age," the troubled "Curious George" did much better business its first weekend than Universal Studios' internal estimates had predicted; Disney's dogs-in-peril story "Eight Below" grossed more than $79 million; and Sony's live-action comedy "The Pink Panther" was a solid hit. Also, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," despite being overshadowed by intense media attention surrounding the costlier, longer and more violent "King Kong," left far bigger footprints in domestic and international theaters, grossing more than $731 million worldwide.

John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, says: "We are more optimistic at this juncture in 2006 than we were in 2005. [We're] excited about the breadth of genres and ratings. Family pictures are spaced throughout the year."

Of course, not every movie aimed at parents and their kids turns into a money-making hit. Of the recent crop, "Little Manhattan," "The Shaggy Dog" and "Nanny McPhee" fizzled and faded quickly. And like any Hollywood romance, the industry's love affair with family audiences waxes and wanes.

Just two decades back, Disney sold the vast majority of movie tickets to families, fueled largely by its animated hits "The Little Mermaid," "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast."

A number of rivals tried to clone the Disney formula, but attempts by both 20th Century Fox ("Titan A.E.," "Anastasia") and Warner Bros. ("The Iron Giant," "Quest for Camelot") fared so poorly that the studios shut down their animation units.

But as the rivals stumbled, so too did Disney, as its two-dimensional animated movies, including "Home on the Range," tanked. The competition stormed back. Pixar pioneered computer feature animation ("Finding Nemo," "Toy Story") and other studios such as DreamWorks ("Shrek," "Madagascar") followed their lead.

Now, both Fox and Warners are back in the animation game. Sony has made its first in-house computer-animated movie, July's "Open Season," and Paramount is releasing the animated "Barnyard" in October.

"There's definitely a hunger for movies that you can take your kids to, and now it looks like everyone is in the children's movie business," says producer Gary Goetzman, who with Hanks is making the upcoming family films "The Ant Bully," "Amelia Bedelia," "The City of Ember" and "Where the Wild Things Are."

The current spate of family-oriented films is generating solid returns in part because parents are buying tickets for themselves, rather than just dropping their kids at the megaplex. Even teens and adults without kids are attending screenings, says Chris Meledandri, the 20th Century Fox executive who shepherded both "Ice Age" films.

"What was clearly driving [opening] weekend was that the film was working for a broad audience -- not just a family audience," Meledandri said.

Fox estimated that non-family patrons made up as much as 90% of the audience for some nighttime screenings of "Ice Age: The Meltdown."

The studio is now at work on a movie version of its animated TV series "The Simpsons" (due next year) and an adaptation of the Dr. Seuss book "Horton Hears a Who!" (coming in 2008).

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