'Die Hard' vs. Pixar: Trackers smell a rat

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After a 12-year hiatus, Bruce Willis' John McClane was pulled back into action to protect the nation from cyber terrorists, and his fellow citizens took notice. "Live Free or Die Hard," from 20th Century Fox, took in $9.1 million Wednesday on its first day of national release, the studio said.

Still, McClane, who has handily defeated effete Eurotrash in the past, is destined to find himself overshadowed this weekend by a Parisian rat with a refined palette.

The fourth "Die Hard" didn't set any records -- the current record-holder for an opening Wednesday is Sony Pictures' "Spider-Man 2," which bowed to a single-day gross of $40.4 million on June 30, 2004.

But Fox execs pronounced themselves pleased with both the day's opening number -- which included some Tuesday night showings -- as well as positive responses from audiences that saw the movie, which debuted in 3,172 theaters.

"It built through the night," said Fox president of distribution Bruce Snyder, adding that strong 10 p.m. showings suggest "Die Hard" is connecting with young males as well as the older males who grew up with the franchise. "We did exit surveys, and the reactions are some of the best I can remember seeing, which bodes well for the film."

By the time the dust settles Sunday night at the North American boxoffice, Remy the rat, the animated hero of Pixar Animation Studios' "Ratatouille," is expected to emerge as the weekend winner, outgrossing Willis' time-tested and constantly embattled ex-cop -- at least on the basis of the Friday-Sunday returns. Nevertheless, McClane could have the last sardonic laugh if "Die Hard" ends up with a larger cumulative gross after five days in the marketplace.

Buena Vista's release of "Ratatouille," which will be dishing up laughs in 3,940 theaters, is arriving on a wave of rave reviews for the latest film from director Brad Bird. Pixar -- whose brand has been front and center in the marketing of the film -- and Bird have set themselves a tough challenge because Bird's last movie, "The Incredibles," opened to $70.5 million in November 2004. In fact, when Pixar's "Cars" debuted in June 2006 to $60.1 million, it was regarded as something of a disappointment.

The G-rated "Ratatouille" does face obstacles, what with a rat as its protagonist and a title that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but the film is sure to reach out to families as well as college-age and older adults. It should easily nudge aside the previous weekend's No. 1 film, Universal Pictures' "Evan Almighty," which also is courting the family crowd but which appears destined to fall to third place overall.

Still, some weakness in the tracking suggests that whatever its ultimate take, "Ratatouille" might be hard-pressed to climb above the $40 million mark for the weekend.

"Die Hard," on the other hand, should easily outperform earlier installments in the franchise. The original first started blowing things up nearly 20 years ago in a different movie universe -- it grossed $7.1 million during its first wide weekend on its way to a cumulative $83 million domestic haul. The 1990 sequel, "Die Hard 2," bowed to $21.7 million and eventually grossed $117.5 million, while 1995's "Die Hard: With a Vengeance" scored an opening of $22.2 million and a $100 million total.

Directed by Len Wiseman ("Underworld: Evolution"), the latest "Die Hard" has been designed as a PG-13 rather than an R rating. The weekend is aiming for a three-day tally that crosses the $30 million mark.

Focus Features' "Evening" and the Weinstein Co.'s "Sicko" both are opening in fewer than 1,000 theaters -- 977 and 441, respectively -- but Michael Moore's latest documentary, which takes on the ills of the health-care industry, enjoys the edge.

"Sicko" has been generating news stories even before it debuted at the Festival de Cannes in May even as the Weinstein Co. has been working hard to downplay expectations, insisting that the docu is more likely to perform similarly to 2002's "Bowling for Columbine," which opened in eight theaters and eventually grossed $21.6 million in the U.S., than 2004's "Fahrenheit 9/11," which bowed to $23.9 million in 868 theaters on its way to a $119.2 million gross.

Arriving via a carefully controlled theater count via distribution through Lionsgate Films, "Sicko" could have a launch along the lines of last year's Oscar-winning docu "An Inconvenient Truth." Although that docu percolated longer in limited release, it grossed $6.6 million when it moved into 404 theaters in its fourth weekend. Insiders are pegging "Sicko's" bow at about $4 million, but it could reach into the $5 million-$7 million range.

Making a bid for the older female audience -- just like "The Devil Wears Prada," which countered "Superman Returns" on the comparable weekend last year -- Focus will unwrap "Evening," director Lajos Koltai's adaptation of Susan Minot's novel about a dying woman looking back on her life.

Starring Vanessa Redgrave, the film boasts one of the most impressive lineups of actresses in some time, with Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Natasha Richardson, Claire Danes and Toni Collette among others vying for screen time along with Patrick Wilson and Hugh Dancy. However the film fares over the long run, though, it probably will face a modest beginning, bowing somewhere less than the $5 million mark as it attempts to establish a foothold in the top 10.
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