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‘Furious 7’: How the ‘Fast’ Franchise Avoided a Straight-to-DVD Fate and Kept Growing

The “Fast and Furious” series is one of the rare movie franchises that has built up momentum as it goes along.

Fourteen years after the first film in the saga roared into theaters, “Furious 7” opened to an astounding $384 million globally. That establishes a new high-water mark for the “Fast and Furious” films and ranks as the fourth biggest debut in history. The only films to top that figure are two “Harry Potter” pictures and “The Avengers” — rarefied company indeed.

“The action gets bigger, every film gets bigger and consequently, you’re seeing a bigger result,” said Nick Carpou, president of domestic distribution at Universal.

Most franchises don’t stick around for more than a decade, let alone continue to expand their audience. Credit Universal Pictures and producer Neal Moritz with willingness to tinker with the engine. That relentless experimentation saved the series from straight-to-DVD purgatory and transformed the films about a hard-driving set of heroes into a brand that rivals Iron Man and James Bond.

“This franchise took the road less traveled and became a trailblazer,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “You don’t have the highest-grossing film in a series come seven films into a franchise. That has a lot to do with the way they’re continually upping the ante.”

It almost didn’t happen. After the third film in the series, “Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift,” finished its run with a franchise-worst $158.5 million, Universal executives worried that the series had run out of gas. The films only rediscovered their mojo after studio executives convinced Vin Diesel, the star of the original film, to return to the series and brought the movies back to their heist film roots. Since that time, each new chapter has outraced the one that preceded it.

Most series get rebooted when they start to grow long in the tooth, but the “Fast and Furious” movies double down on what worked originally, bringing back castmembers who had cycled out at various points such as Diesel, Lucas Black and Michelle Rodriguez. They’ve also wisely injected fresh blood into the series, introducing Dwayne Johnson in the fifth film and adding B-movie gods Jason Statham and Kurt Russell to the mix in “Furious 7.”

Moreover, the cast ranks as the most diverse among modern movie franchises, including African-Americans and Latino actors like Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson and Rodriguez. It is also less male-dominated than the average blockbusters, giving its female stars a chance to kick ass too.

“It’s an important lesson for Hollywood to learn,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “It’s not just that they have a diverse cast. These are real fleshed out characters. They don’t pander.”

That bigscreen multiculturalism was reflected in the opening weekend crowd for “Furious 7.” Ticket buyers were 49% female, 37% Hispanic, 25% Caucasian, 24% African-American, 10% Asian and 4% “other.” As the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Fritz noted on Twitter, 75 % of the audience was “non-white.”

Promoting diversity is sound business given that African Americans and Hispanics over-represent among frequent moviegoers, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

“Everyone sitting in the audience in ‘Fast and Furious’ can find someone onscreen to relate to,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak, who notes that the onscreen diversity has helped the film draw large crowds in South America and other parts of the world.

The series has taken a gleeful “can you top this” approach to its action sequences. “Furious 7,” for instance, ignores the laws of physics by having cars parachute out of planes and soar from across the Abu Dhabi skyline, insuring that every cent of its $190 million production budget ends up onscreen. It’s a small price to pay for a franchise that may have its first $1 billion-grossing installment.

Universal plans to make at least three more “Fast and Furious” films, but it will move forward without a key player. Paul Walker died in a car crash during filming on the seventh film, which is part of the reason that the sequel outpaced the sixth installment’s opening by roughly $50 million.

Universal referenced the actor’s death obliquely in its black and white promotional material that carried the tagline “one last ride” and the movie’s end credits acknowledge Walker.

“People did come out because they wanted to understand what happened to the Paul Walker’s character,” said Carpou. “They were able to say goodbye to the character in a way that was respectfully done.”

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