Boffo B.O. spurs car-themed projects at other studios

Never mind that gas is heading toward $5 per gallon by summer. Hollywood’s love affair with the automobile is just heating up, as the success of Universal’s “Fast and Furious” franchise has every studio looking for its own car-themed hit.

Once a staple of the studio slate, films featuring four-wheeled action had fallen out of favor in recent years, after pricey box office underperformers like the Joel Silver-produced “Speed Racer” at Warner Bros.

But U’s “Fast Five,” the fifth installment in the decade-old series, proves that auds — particularly young men — still thirst for high-octane car chases. The film, with its multi-ethnic cast and overseas appeal, has already nabbed $168 million worldwide. In the U.S, ethnic auds accounted for a healthy 65% of the gross, helping the pic become the biggest opener of the year.

“I am very pleasantly surprised that the franchise has had such legs,” said “Fast Five” producer Neal Moritz. “But these films are perfect popcorn fare. They are very escapist.”

Other studios have taken notice:

Warner Bros. has high hopes for a potential “Hot Wheels” franchise, based on the toy cars from Mattel. Silver is on board to produce.

• The Weinstein Co. is in active development on a bigscreen incarnation of 1980s TV series “Knight Rider.”

• Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer and Ron Howard are developing a remake of the 1976 action comedy “Eat My Dust.” Howard starred in the Roger Corman-produced original.

• There are at least three pics in development centering on Italian sports-car designer Enzo Ferrari. Fox is moving forward on “Race to the Death,” based on the true story of the rivalry between the Ford Motor Co. and Ferrari. Paramount is shepherding “Street Legal,” which chronicles the story of racecar driver Carroll Shelby, who rose from humble beginnings to take Le Mans title from Ferrari. And Michael Mann is attached to direct and produce a Ferrari biopic.

“If they are good movies with interesting, original characters and a fresh new take on the car genre film, then why not?” Moritz said.

Meanwhile, two more gas-fueled blockbusters loom this summer: Paramount/DreamWorks’ “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and Disney/Pixar’s “Cars 2.”

As for U, scribe Chris Morgan is already penning a “Fast & Furious 6,” and a greenlight seems a no-brainer, with auds showing no signs of fatigue (though “Fast Five’s” marketing campaign played up the film’s heist angle in an effort to keep the series feeling fresh, says a U exec). New addition Dwayne Johnson’s contract doesn’t call for him to reprise his role in a sixth outing, but Moritz said Johnson is a huge fan of the films and would likely return.

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