“Furious 7” is on pace to cross the finish line with $115 million this weekend, making franchise history and setting a new record for an April opening.
The massive domestic debut is a testament to Paul Walker, the star of the action series who died in a 2013 car crash at the age of 40. The film was originally scheduled to premiere last year, but production was put on hold while the filmmakers figured out how to finish shooting without the actor.
Much as the death of Heath Ledger increased interest in and coverage of “The Dark Knight,” “Furious 7” is enabling fans of the series to honor the star by seeing one of his last screen roles. Posters and promotional art for the Universal Pictures release have been tastefully shot in black-and-white with the tagline “one last ride” serving as a memorial of sorts to Walker.
“This is Paul Walker’s last film, and it was marketed as such to evoke some emotion,” said Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners. “It’s trying to tug on the heartstrings, and that’s a good recipe for success.”
That element may be what’s driving the latest “Fast and Furious” movie to what looks to be unprecedented grosses, but the franchise’s endurance is remarkable. It has made $2.4 billion over six installments, but unlike other series that grow more fatigued with each new chapter, these films have gained traction as they have gone along. Starting with a franchise reboot of sorts with the fourth film, which brought back Vin Diesel after a two-picture hiatus, each subsequent part has built on the success of the one that came before it.
It has achieved those results by highlighting one of the most ethnically diverse casts of any blockbuster release — a group that includes Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris. That’s helped the series attract Hispanic and African-American audiences. Interestingly, tracking for “Furious 7” indicates that Caucasian interest in this film is higher than for recent installments.
“If you want to reach a broad audience, it helps to have multiple demographics in your film,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “This cast has everyone in the mix, so no one is excluded.”
Universal and the filmmakers have broadened the scope of the series. They have continued to move beyond the drag race scene, incorporating heist elements and boasting action sequences of gravity-defying cars and drivers that cry out for the bigscreen.
All that spectacle comes at a cost. “Furious 7” carries a sizable $190 million pricetag, but most analysts predict that the film will be the highest-grossing one in the series and will play well with foreign audiences.
“These actors resonate overseas, and action films play well abroad,” said Handler.
The film bows in 4,003 North American theaters including Imax screens. There’s also a muscular international rollout across 63 foreign territories and approximately 10,500 locations, where it could do $250 million worth of business. That’s particularly impressive, because it doesn’t include a number of key markets like China, Japan and Russia, where “Furious 7” will debut later in April.
Pre-sales for the film have been sizzling, with MovieTickets.com reporting that “Furious 7” is 34% ahead of the sixth film at the same point in the sales cycle and Fandango announcing that “Furious 7” is on track to be the biggest pre-seller for any April release in its history.
If “Furious 7” does pass $100 million, it will overtake “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” whose $95 million debut is the biggest April opening of all time. It will also top “Fast and Furious 6’s” $97.4 million bow to become the franchise’s leading debut.
Studios wisely held off on launching another major release on the same weekend as “Furious 7.” Among holdover titles, last weekend’s champion “Home” should fare best because there’s not a lot of competition for the family audience. Look for the animated title to do roughly $30 million.
Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart’s “Get Hard” will have more trouble attracting its core male audience with “Furious 7” in the marketplace. The R-rated prison comedy should fall roughly 50% from its opening weekend numbers to finish with $17 million.
The top five should be rounded out by “Cinderella” and “Insurgent,” with both pulling in around $10 million.
But the headlines will be all about “Furious 7,” which ushers in a year of blockbusters including “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Avengers: The Age of Ultron” that Hollywood hopes will be the biggest in history. Start your engines.