The last time I saw a studio resort to prayer for a movie opening was Universal for Evan Almighty. And the Box Office Gods didn’t make it a hit pic. But now Warner Bros is figuratively on its knees praying for at least a mid-$30 million weekend opening for its kiddie anime Speed Racer — already down from a hoped-for $40 million just a few days earlier. There are some positive, and some negative, factors to consider. For instance, a plus is that the “Parents and Kids” premium tracking has bettered by a lot. But before I delve into those issues, I have to say that I rarely see Hollywood so gleeful to dump all over a movie’s release. But my box office gurus can’t wait to puncture the tires of what they say will be Speed Racer‘s slow crawl of a domestic opening Friday. Still their predictions are a bit higher today than a few weeks ago; they now range from high $20sM to mid-30sM from 3,606 theaters. That’s well behind Marvel’s blockbuster holdover Iron Man which Paramount has placed in 4,111 venues and projected a $50M second weekend.

As a Warner exec told me this afternoon, “I remain optimistic that families will go. I’m hoping we mirror something like Alvin And The Chipmunks. Industry projections based on tracking had it opening at $25M, but it opened to $44M.” Unfortunately, Warner’s film will get creamed by the competition from the Disney/Walden blockbuster Narnia 2 opening the very next weekend. One bright spot is international: Speed Racer will do better per-screen Friday when it debuts day and date in 30+ foreign territories, even though it’s a very “talky” film which usually hurts overseas biz. (More Speed Racer analysis below…)

whathappensinvegas_galleryteaser.jpgAs for Fox’s What Happens in Vegas and it’s tired “been-there, done-that” plot, none of my box office gurus are expecting much from the newcomer, despite stars Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz playing newlyweds. But the first-time-paired duo haven’t been hot at the cineplex individually for a long while, so weekend projections are for low $20sM from 3,215 runs, but I don’t think one estimate of a crummy $15M is possible because of Fox’s high-octane marketing machinery.

The fact is, I could have written three weeks ago that Speed Racer would perform dismally just based on the bad buzz and dire predictions circulating. But I waited because I really wanted to give all the tracking every chance to improve. That said, a lot of self-appointed box office “experts” (most of whom haven’t a shred of impartiality or integrity, since they make lame predictions while also hawk advertising, push products, promote fantasy leagues, or even own movie theaters) don’t know enough to judge children’s movies on the special “parents and kids” tracking which is not included as part of general tracking and therefore not immediately accessible to anyone except deep pockets who specifically pay a premium for it. Well, I can report that Speed Racer looks OK based on that tracking. Not blockbuster good. But better nonetheless. My sources tell me it’s first choice among parents and boys aged 7 through 11, which represents a big jump since Monday. That’s when Iron Man was first at 45% and Speed Racer only 40%. But today Speed Racer is at 57% vs Iron Man at 43%.

The real problems plaguing this pic occurred not in the marketing but in the production. Oh heck, they started as far back as handing control of the project to the writer-director Wachowski siblings (since they’re no longer brothers). The Industry scuttlebutt is that Warner Bros Pictures Group prez Jeff Robinov, a one-time agent, gave way too much power to his former clients. Of course, the success of their Matrix franchise justified a certain degree of autonomy. But Robinov and for that matter his boss Alan Horn should have written into the contract that Speed Racer had to clock in at 90 to 100 minutes long — the average for kiddie pics these days — and not the absurd 2 hours, 15 minutes length it is now. In addition, the pic should have been “aged up” more: everyone including the studio complains it plays too young and limits its audience by appealing mostly to little boys. And then there’s the cost, said to have climbed as high as $185M (though Warner sources insist it’s $125M). I hear, understandably, that Robinov and Horn were frustrated by the Wachowskis’ unwillingness to listen to reason — but also powerless to do anything about it. That just shouldn’t have happened.