Fast, furious, unstoppable
Neither Vin Diesel nor producer Neal Moritz wanted a sequel to The Fast and the Furious. The 2001 film about a group of East Los Angeles street racers and the FBI agent (Paul Walker) who infiltrates their ring just wasn't "that kind of film," according to Moritz.
Now, 14 years, seven movies, a few restarts and US$2.4 billion later, Universal's homegrown Fast and Furious franchise has become one of the jewels of the studio.
And cinema's most improbable series keeps getting bigger and faster, fueled by growing international interest. With its diverse cast, keen self-awareness, postcard locales and crazy stunts, Fast and Furious has become the quintessential global franchise.
And even larger sums of international currency lie ahead: Furious 7 is tracking to be the most successful instalment yet, with the studio planning to make at least three more movies.
The first film's US$207 million worldwide gross made a sequel inevitable, even without Diesel, who still thought it was a mistake and was willing to walk away from 2 Fast 2 Furious, and more than US$20 million to prove it.
"I felt like the surest way to rule yourself out of being a classic was to sequel-ize," said Diesel.
Then, when director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan stepped in for the third film, Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, it seemed like a franchise killer. But in convincing Diesel to come back for a small cameo, the team concocted a crazy plan for three more films that would create an interconnected saga out of the disparate story lines.
The fourth, simply titled Fast and Furious, was the turning point, reuniting the originals, including Diesel and Walker, with key members of Tokyo Drift. Lin, Morgan, Moritz and Diesel (along with his millions of social-media fans) followed that with perhaps the best film in the series, Fast Five, which added Dwayne Johnson to the cast and earned US$630 million worldwide. Fast and Furious 6, did even better, grossing a staggering US$789 million.
"These films pushed the boundaries of traditional action movie motifs and created a world unto itself," said Paul Dergarabedian, the senior analyst for box office firm Rentrak. "Their international locales and diverse cast made them a truly global phenomenon."
Director James Wan, who took the helm for the seventh film, believes the "Furious" appeal has a lot to do with the characters and casting.
"People like this franchise because of the incredible stunts and crazy action set pieces. But I think, ultimately, it has longevity because of the characters. People love the characters; people love the actors playing the characters," said Wan.
Not only does the series boast one of the most racially diverse casts in blockbuster history, the team is always looking at the evolution of the story with an eye to the international, from the savvy casting of talents like Indonesian actor Joe Taslim (Fast and Furious 6) and Thai martial artist Tony Jaa (Furious 7), to those travelogue locations.
"It does help," said Universal's president of international distribution, Duncan Clark, who saw an uptick in earnings from Brazil after it was featured in Fast Five. He hopes the same will be true for Abu Dhabi, a key setting in the latest movie. Diesel, in a YouTube video, said outright that they took the production to the United Arab Emirates for its box office potential.
Indeed, most international markets have grown steadily over the past few films, but none can match the power of China, which has become "a tremendous elevation for all films now," said Clark. China contributed US$53.6 million of the sixth film's total (up from Fast Five's US$38 million) and all eyes are on Furious 7's debut there on April 12.
China's worth was not lost on the promotional side either. While Fast & Furious 6 had an extensive international press tour, Furious 7 had only two locations on the schedule: Los Angeles and Beijing, its first press event there.
For Universal, the series is vitally important to its overall business and a worthy competitor to the superhero fare of other
"At this point, we believe we can compete with anybody. We saw a huge opportunity to be the first movie of the early summer and then have three weeks all to ourselves," said Moritz.
Paul Walker's death
As for what's next, Universal chair Donna Langley has said that there are at least three more films in the series. Right now, though, they're just glad Furious 7 is finally set to open.
The film was supposed to debut in July of 2014, but Paul Walker's death in November 2013 threw everything for a loop as the team regrouped to figure out first, whether or not to complete it in his absence, and then how to do it tastefully.
"Honestly, this has been the hardest movie I've ever made," said Moritz, who now looks forward to continuing the journey.
"We've had talks about what we want to do, but we'll get really serious after the release."
And even after seven films, there's still stuff yet to be tried: No Fast and Furious film has played domestically in 3-D, partly because the fast cuts of the action sequences have made them difficult to watch in the format. Also, they have yet to use China as a location and Moritz thinks they will.
"I'm sure there will be a point where the bar is so high we'll not be able to beat it. But I think we've got plans for a good few before that," said Clark.