A question of traction

'Speed' might not get checkered flag this weekend after 'Iron Man'

"Speed Racer" seems stuck in the slow lane. mThe Wachowski siblings-directed film opens Friday in about 3,600 theaters, and it has been considered one of Warner Bros.' tentpole releases of the summer boxoffice season. But the PG-rated "Speed" — a big-screen adaptation of the Japanese cartoon of the '60s and '70s — has been tracking unimpressively in prerelease surveys.

That suddenly means that if "Iron Man" should gross even half as much as in its first Friday-Sunday frame, the Paramount/ Marvel comic book adaptation likely will repeat at No. 1 next weekend. Final figures released Monday put the weekend's "Iron Man" tally at $98.6 million, with the Robert Downey Jr. starrer toting a $102.1 million cume since bowing Thursday night.

So does "Speed Racer" have a shot at winning the frame?

"It's too early to tell," Warners domestic distribution president Dan Fellman said. "But this is the first real family movie of the summer, and we're going to give it our best."

At present, "Speed Racer" appears on track to gross $25 million-$35 million during the coming frame, though a late-breaking surge in must-see sentiment could produce a bigger bow. The film targets family moviegoers, a group notoriously tough to track before openings.

Boxoffice derbies aside, Warners execs suggest there's no need for "Speed Racer" to open huge.

Most of its splashy effects were done with relatively affordable green-screen technology. So the $100 million production will pencil into profitability roughly when its domestic gross hits a similar nine-digit sum, and even a $25 million bow could put it on track to deliver that.

"Iron Man" totes a negative cost of about $150 million, but its lock on a domestic run of more than $200 million means big profits already are assured for all involved. In fact, it's possible the film could write itself into the black by just its second weekend, as foreign coin also is pouring in and projections for ancillary revenue are sky high.

Marvel already has greenlighted an "Iron Man" sequel, set for April 30, 2010. The film's distributor plans to sustain heavy marketing of the pic while sustaining its megawide run of 4,105 playdates, but Paramount executives declined to discuss in any detail how high "Iron Man" will fly worldwide.

"It sure feels like 'Iron Man' is on track for a great run," Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore said Monday.

In the meantime, though the big "Iron Man" bow might have hurt Warners' shot at first-weekend bragging rights with "Speed Racer," it put smiles on the faces of Universal execs — for two reasons.

There's a growing sense that the "Iron Man" phenom might pique moviegoers' appetite for comic book adaptations, helping Universal succeed with its June 13 release of "The Incredible Hulk." Also, exit surveys show "Iron Man" patrons responded positively to the "Hulk" trailer shown with the Paramount film. (partialdiff)