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Kids to fuel ‘Cars’ box office

Disney/Pixar projecting $48-52 million for sequel

Tracking for “Cars 2” has been all over the road leading up to its opening today. But with a generation of kids raised on the Disney/Pixar franchise’s merchandise, the toon sequel’s B.O. could end up surprising even Disney, which has projected $48 million-$52 million for the weekend.

“Cars 2,” which bows at 4,115 locations, including 2,508 in 3D, is expected to win the weekend’s domestic B.O. race. Yet recent soft 3D perfs suggest the sequel won’t get a significant boost from the format, with only 45% of the opening gross expected to come from 3D screens.

Not as difficult to predict: Sony’s R-rated laffer “Bad Teacher,” at 3,049, is on track for an opening close to that of “Bridesmaids,” which collected $26 million in its first weekend.

The openers should split demos nicely, with teens and adults heading for “Bad Teacher” and families for “Cars 2.”

“Cars 2” also will go wide overseas in territories including Australia, Brazil, Italy, Mexico and Russia; “Bad Teacher” opens in about 25 international territories, with Germany the only major market. Sony launched the laffer last week in the U.K., where it’s grossed almost $4 million.

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Stateside B.O., which is off 6% from 2010 year-to-date totals, will run a close race this weekend vs. last year, when “Toy Story 3” won in its second frame with $59.3 million and Sony’s “Grown Ups” debuted at $40.5 million.

“Cars 2” has enough fuel in its tank — with the prestige of the Pixar brand and the most merchandising dollars ever for a single film — to drive a weekend gross close to “Toy 3’s” second weekend. Despite 3D ticket prices, however, it’s unlikely to match the opening of the first “Cars,” which debuted at $60 million on June 9, 2006.

Why are B.O. pundits so perplexed?

The performance of family-driven films is always difficult to predict since tracking services don’t talk directly to kids. Also, “Cars 2” is likely to skew much younger (and mostly to boys) than a franchise like “Toy Story,” which had seen widespread interest among general audiences.

So it’s no surprise that “Cars 2” isn’t pulling massive tracking numbers. But rival studios still advise not to bet against the toon, which could see a spike in interest headed into the weekend.

“Typically, Pixar films are always top-end grossers, but they get there through their multiples,” said Disney distribution topper Chuck Viane.

With “Bad Teacher,” a bow north of $20 million would put the film in a solid spot considering a reported budget just under $20 million. The Sony laffer may ride the recent love for R-rated laffers (“The Hangover Part II” and “Bridesmaids”) and post strong holdover perfs. “Hangover II” is the year’s top U.S. grosser with $236.9 million; “Bridesmaids” has cumed a remarkable $140 million.

Sony has been trailering the film before both comedies, and “Bad Teacher” is seeing curiosity from auds 17 and older, with highest interest from females 17-25.

With families and femmes busy at “Cars 2” and “Bad Teacher,” Warner Bros.’ “Green Lantern” looks to expand to more teenage auds in its second outing.

Last weekend, “Green Lantern” bowed below expectations with $53.2 million because of a lack of support from under-25 moviegoers. But a strong midweek perf suggests the pic’s gaining ground with that demo. “Green Lantern” cumed $67.2 million through Wednesday.

The frame’s other soph player, 20th Century Fox’s “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” could have a tougher time this weekend since “Cars 2” also appeals to families. Domestic cume is $26.3 million.

At the specialty B.O., Sony Pictures Classics’ “Midnight in Paris” continues to sell plenty of ducats, with a domestic cume of $23.3 million. “Paris” surpassed Woody Allen’s most recent top B.O. performer, 2008’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” at $22.5 million, but is still behind 1986’s “Hannah and Her Sisters,” Allen’s best-performing pic, with $40.1 million domestically.

Summit immigration drama “A Better Life,” from helmer Chris Weitz, starts out at two locations in L.A. and two in New York this weekend.

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