Forecast: Fourth 'Ice Age' Drifts Into Theaters
In a fairly obvious attempt to stay away from The Dark Knight Rises, the major studios are only releasing one significant movie this weekend.

Ice Age: Continental Drift is debuting at 3,880 locations this weekend, 2,731 of which are playing the movie in 3D. This is only the second significant animated franchise to reach a fourth installment following the Shrek series, and each subsequent chapter has been more successful than the previous one for Ice Age. The most recent entry, 2009's Dawn of the Dinosaurs, earned a very good $196.6 million domestically while setting a foreign animated record with an outstanding $690.1 million haul. It was also well-liked for the most part, scoring a 7.0 rating on IMDb.

Since 2009, though, the landscape for animated sequels has become much more treacherous at the domestic box office. Shrek Forever After tumbled 26 percent from its predecessor, while Kung Fu Panda 2 and Cars 2 fell 23 and 21 percent, respectively. Those were at least better than Happy Feet Two, which lost over half of the original's audience, and non-animated family sequel Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, which was off 39 percent.

Of course, over that same time period there's Toy Story 3, which earned an incredible $415 million, and Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, which is the first entry in its franchise to pass $200 million. These two movies thrived because they appeared to offer something different, something new: for Toy Story 3, it was the daycare setting, while Madagascar 3 had Europe and circus wigs.

For Continental Drift, it's a bit harder to tell what differentiates the movie from the previous Ice Age installments. Some previews make pretty clear that the gang is lost at sea this time around, while others focus on the pratfalls of the Scrat character. There are also some efforts being made to keep the series hip and fresh with the addition of Jennifer Lopez, Nicki Minaj and Drake to the voice cast. None of that provides the coherent, enticing message that was there for the last movie: its Ice Age, but with dinosaurs.

Another challenge for Ice Age is its place on the calendar. Summer 2012 has already seen two $200 million animated movies with Madagascar 3 and Brave, and it's tough to say if there's room for another big hit. Two Summers ago, Despicable Me managed to overcome a similar problem and ultimately earn over $250 million, though that had the advantage of being an original movie.

The point of all of this is not to say that Ice Age: Continental Drift will perform poorly: it's a stable franchise that has plenty of fans, and it's positioned well as the only new nationwide release this weekend. It is, however, very difficult to imagine it getting close to The Meltdown's $68 million debut (Dawn of the Dinosaurs opened on a Wednesday, so it doesn't provide a great opening comparison). Fox is currently expecting an opening in the high-$30-million range.

It's also important to note that, in this case, the domestic performance doesn't really give a good picture of the movie's overall success. Through Wednesday, Continental Drift had already earned $238 million overseas, and it should wind up close to the last movie's record-setting $690.1 million foreign haul.

Forecast (July 13-15)

1. Ice Age 4 - $48.5 million

2. Amazing Spider-Man - $33.5 million (-46%)

3. Ted - $21.2 million (-34%)

4. Brave - $11.2 million (-43%)

Bar for Success

Six years ago without 3D, Ice Age: The Meltdown earned $68 million on its opening weekend, and the two other major animated movies this Summer have also opened north of $60 million. Ice Age: Continental Drift doesn't need to get quite as high: anything over $50 million is a good start for this four-quel.

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