livefreeordiehard_teaser2.jpgFRIDAY AM: Yes, it’s the start of another nailbiter for gross receipts this summer weekend as blockbusters bust a move in movie theaters. Right now my box office gurus are saying the totals for both films by Sunday look neck-and-neck: between $40 million to $45 million. Naturally, Fox especially is trying to lower 5-day expectations for Live Free Or Die Hard by projecting high $30s (as in millions) since its adult action marketplace is so jammed with high-profile product right now. Disney / Pixar’s Ratatouille debuting today also faces a lot of existing family fare yet still managed to score a bountiful 3,940 theaters. And Disney tells me that its toon’s tracking has “gotten stronger every day.” So … Will Remy the Rat die hard? Will Bruce Willis get French fried? It’s always tough to know what a pic will do from Friday through Sunday when it opens on the Wednesday before. That’s the case with Fox’s Die Hard 4, which took in $9.1 million Wednesday and $5.9 mil Thursday from 3,408 theaters. While that wasn’t anywhere near a record — only 27th for top single day grosses on a Wednesday — the studio’s exit polls are through the roof for the over the top stunt-filled pic. “Only film that delivers on the hype this summer,” is a popular response, and Fox insiders are calling these exit polls the best they’ve seen since Speed. ”These exit polls indicate for the first time this summer that audiences are satisfied and not feeling ripped off,” a Fox insider explained to me. The studio knows it won’t break daily or weekend records, but could play for a long time. Even the film reviewers have gone ga-ga for the flying cars, huge fireballs, collapsing freeways, and other implausible stunts culminating when a car takes out a helicopter: RottenTomatoes.com is giving Live Free Or Die Hard an overwhelming “fresh” score of 77% from even the snooty critics from major media outlets.

ratatouille_teaserposterbig.jpgInterestingly, before its debut, the pic had been tracking good but not great, especially doing well with older men and older females who knew the John McClane character well. So I’m told the studio set out to “educate” the under-25 crowd on who was this wise-cracking yippee-ki-yay yelling hero since it had been so long between sequels (back to 1995 when Bruce was still married to Demi). Then again, the Yahoo trailer tested higher than those for any action movie in Fox history. One interesting note: Die Hard 4‘s premiere at NYC’s Radio City Music Hall last Friday was filled with 500 off-duty cops and the audience jumped up and cheered at many moments. Another is that, to make this deal, Willis did not back off his deal which from the start of the franchise has been among the richest. But with a young director, baby-faced co-stars, and little CGI though a lot of analog action, Fox was able to make the film for no more than $125 mil, a veritable bargain this summer of the $300+ mil tentpoles. ”We just know how to do that stuff for less,” one insider told me. “All our movies are made for less. It’s what we do.”

In the same vein, Disney / Pixar should have it down to a science by now. But lately this one-two punch of creativity and marketing doesn’t pack the box office wallop it once did. Analysts don’t expect Ratatouille to equal the $60 mil opening weekend of Cars. But here’s another difference between these toons: Cars was a merchandising bonanza while Ratatouille won’t be. (What parent wants their kid to hug a plush toy rat?) Still, film reviewers found this toon delicious (an eye-popping 93% fresh reviews on RottenTomatoes.com). No doubt this movie deserves to be seen. Its true financial prospects won’t become clear until the Saturday kid matinees. Of course, what appeals to sophisticated film critics may not be accessible to parents or children who can’t pronounce the title and don’t care about French gourmet repast (unless The Food Network has changed that). Here’s hoping the rat doesn’t get gout.

For more estimates listed by title, see box office results here...

Editor-in-Chief Nikki Finke - tip her here.