By the Numbers: March 15

Welcome to the “Ice Age.”

Fox’s animated romp should set the pace for a blistering summer-like weekend at the box office.

Fellow rookies include the action/comedy Showtime, pairing stoic Robert De Niro with bigmouth Eddie Murphy, and Resident Evil, a gory adaptation of the popular video game. Things will fry if No. 1 champ The Time Machine can withstand lousy word-of-mouth during its second weekend.

Fox is no DreamWorks when it comes to out-Disneying Disney. Anastasia made a less-than-regal $58.4 million in 1997. Titan A.E. imploded with $22.7 million in 2000. Once Upon a Forest earned a withering $5.2 million in 1993.

Fox will finally hit the jackpot by inadvertently remaking Monsters Inc. As with that Disney smash, Ice Age follows an attempt to rescue an oh-so-cute baby from a fate worse than death. Our unlikely heroes: a grouchy mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano) with a haunting past; an ingratiating, but accident-prone, sloth (John Leguizamo); and a saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) with a hidden agenda.

The result is a funny, touching and occasionally frightening undertaking that should enchant children. Although nowhere near as sardonic as Shrek, Ice Age boasts enough adult-themed gags to keep grown-ups in stitches.

Ice Age arrives at a time when demand is high for such family fare as Snow Dogs ($77.4 million through Sunday), Big Fat Liar ($43.9 million through Tuesday) and Return to Never Land ($42.3 million through Tuesday).

Given its March berth, Ice Age cannot hope to give Shrek ($42.3 opening; $267 million total) or Monsters Inc. ($62.5 million opening; $252.5 million total) a run for their money. Ice Age should sail past Antz‘s $17.1 opening in October 1998 to match last weekend’s $22.5 million debut by The Time Machine. It also helps that Ice Age comes complete with the new trailer for Star Wars Episode II – Attack of the Clones. Fox used the same ploy in 1998 with The Siege, which enjoyed a $13.9 million opening on the strength of being paired with the Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace trailer.

Ice Age could very well exceed Antz‘s $90.7 million if it can weather next weekend’s reissue of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.

Ice Age will cause Return to Never Land to endure a chilly fifth weekend. The Peter Pan sequel, though, is well on its way to $50 million. Not bad for what was once a direct-to-video project.

The inspired pairing of Robert De Niro and Eddie Murphy could pose a threat to Ice Age‘s bid for box office supremacy. In Showtime, grizzled LAPD detective De Niro is forced to partner with cocky rookie Murphy for a Cops-styled reality TV show produced by Rene Russo. Think 15 Minutes played for laughs, only with De Niro playing a less media-savvy cop.

Warner Bros. clearly has high hopes for Showtime, which was pushed up from July 19. De Niro seems to have found a new audience since showing a willingness to poke fun at his tough-guy image with 1999’s Analyze This. The mob comedy, co-starring Billy Crystal, opened with $18.3 million on its way to a bang-up $106.8 million. Meet the Parents, which saw De Niro butt heads with prospective son-in-law Ben Stiller, represented a personal best for De Niro in terms of opening ($29.1 million) and total ($166.2 million).

Murphy‘s also on a roll since reviving his career with 1996’s The Nutty Professor. And of course, Murphy detained audiences worldwide as Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop and its glossy but successful sequel (the less said about Beverly Hills Cop III, the better).

Accordingly, partnering De Niro with Murphy should produce a $20 million to $25 million opening. Showtime could hit $100 million given that it has no direct competition until Russo‘s cracked crime caper Big Trouble debuts April 5.

Showtime can only mean trouble for All About the Benjamins. The Ice Cube/Mike Epps action/comedy opened with $10 million and has $11.5 million through Tuesday. All About the Benjamins‘ predominately black audience turned out last weekend to watch Ice Cube cause mayhem in Miami but will likely abandon the rapper-turned-actor to see Murphy hold his own against De Niro. If this is the case, All About the Benjamins should experience a 50 percent drop for a second weekend haul of $5 million. Its likely total: just south of Friday‘s $27.3 million.

Those mortally disappointed with Queen of the Damned can take solace in Resident Evil.

Turning a video game into a successful film is a risky prospect. Witness what happened last summer. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider beat its way to $131.1 million solely on the brains, brawn and beauty of star Angelina Jolie. The visually dazzling, but emotionally vacuous, computer-animated Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within crashed with a nightmarish $32.1 million.

Director Paul Anderson logged a high score the last time he played the video game. His Mortal Kombat enjoyed a game-ending $70.4 million. (He didn’t stick around for the 1997 sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, which earned $35.9 million.)

Just like Mortal Kombat and its ilk, Resident Evil doesn’t offer much of a plot. Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez match wits with an out-of-control computer seemingly responsible for killing everyone working at a hush-hush research center. Let’s not forget about the airborne virus that turns scientists into the undead.

You can’t blame Anderson for going back to what he knows–especially as he does a good job turning Resident Evil into a silly, but shock-filled, roller coaster ride. He followed Mortal Kombat with the genuinely creepy, but shamefully ignored, Event Horizon ($26.6 million) and the bone-headed Soldier ($14.6 million).

Resident Evil fans will no doubt turn out in droves this weekend to see Jovovich and Rodriguez kick butt a la Lara Croft, but Anderson‘s plans for a sequel are premature. The blood-soaked Resident Evil hits theaters with a prohibitive R rating. That means Resident Evil cannot possibly hope to match Mortal Kombat‘s surprising $23.2 million debut in 1995.

It doesn’t help that films based on video games free-fall after their opening weekends. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, for example, opened with $47.7 million and then dropped 58.5 percent in its second weekend to $19.7 million. Resident Evil also must contend next weekend with Blade 2: Bloodhunt.

Expect Resident Evil to open with between $12 million and $15 million but burn out at around $40 million. It also will drive a stake through the heart of Queen of the Damned. The anemic sequel to Interview with the Vampire has a mere $27.9 million through Sunday, or less than the $36.3 million that the first film took in its opening weekend in 1994.

The Time Machine, based on the H.G. Wells novel, faces a greater evil than the Morlocks: bad buzz.

Critics scolded director Simon Wells for bastardizing his great-grandfather’s classic tale of progress run amok. Audiences didn’t care. The lure of a $70 million special-effects bonanza–even one that never realizes its full potential–proved irresistible.

Yet Mission to Mars, which opened in March 2000 with $22.8 million, saw its earning slashed by 50 percent in its second weekend, following scabrous reviews. Expect The Time Machine to earn about $11 million if it follows the same path, especially as audiences now have an embarrassment of riches to choose from this weekend.

We Were Soldiers should remain the top choice for audiences seeking a film with dramatic bite. Mel Gibson‘s Vietnam tour of duty took $14.2 in its second weekend, easing by an acceptable 29.7 percent from its $20.2 million opening. Its total through Tuesday: $42.8 million. That’s a little less than the $45.1 million ($46 million) than Gibson‘s Payback made during the same period of play in early 1999.

Unless war fatigue sets in, We Were Soldiers remains on course to beat Braveheart‘s $75.5 million but fall short of Payback‘s $81.5 million.

John Q‘s assault on managed healthcare persists. Denzel Washington‘s hostage thriller has $60 million through Tuesday, after dropping 30 percent in its fourth weekend from $8.5 million to $5.9 million. The prognosis: a $70 million total.

Josh Hartnett‘s vow of celibacy might not last 40 Days and 40 Nights, or even to the end of Lent. The sexless comedy went limp in its second weekend, dropping from $12.2 million to $7 million. Its total through Tuesday is $24.2 million. Hartnett has one weekend left to score before he faces the Some Like It Hot-inspired Sorority Boys.

The wings have all but been pulled from Dragonfly. Kevin Costner‘s supernatural love story abated by 39.2 percent in its third weekend, from $6.6 million to $4 million, and has a lowly $25.4 million through Tuesday. Dragonfly won’t even match the $34.5 million that his flop Thirteen Days made last year.

This is the last full weekend before the Oscars, so the various contenders do not have much longer to state their case by way of the box office.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring continues its journey toward a precious $300 million. Peter Jackson‘s epic has $291.7 million through Tuesday. Fellow Best Picture nominees Gosford Park and In the Bedroom have, respectively, $33.3 million and $30.7 million through Sunday. Monster’s Ball, with Best Actress nominee Halle Berry, hit $15.4 million on Sunday.

An alleged smear campaign did not slow down Russell Crowe‘s A Beautiful Mind, which has $145 million through Tuesday. Ron Howard‘s inventive biography of mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. looks set to hit $150 million before the Oscars ceremony begins. A Best Picture win could see A Beautiful Mind surpass Gladiator‘s $187.6 million total and rank as a box office best for Crowe. Unless Crowe decides to ruin things by throwing another temper tantrum….