Universal's "Fast Five" is racing toward what could be the strongest opening weekend for any movie so far this year.
But will it be enough to keep Ron Meyer running the studio?
If the tracking is correct, "Fast Five" could open to more than $70 million on April 29. That start would almost double the $38.1 million that Paramount's "Rango" grossed in its March 4 opening weekend, which, so far, is the biggest domestic movie debut for 2011.
A strong opening could mark the end of this ho-hum box office year for the industry in general and the beginning of better days for Universal Studios and its president and COO, Meyer, in particular: After "Fast Five," the studio will release "Bridesmaids," "Cowboys & Aliens" and "The Change Up," which are generating a strong early buzz.
Still, although Brian Roberts, chief executive of Universal's new owner, Comcast Corp., has called Meyer one of Universal's "great assets," it's no secret that the studio's president is in a precarious situation.
The company's operating income fell by a half-billion dollars from 2007 to 2009 — from more than $700 million to $200 million. Last year was better, with operating income coming in at $350 million.
The studio's new owner is not inclined to mess with studio leadership — at least not for the moment. According to an individual close to the studio, Meyer was told he had six months before Comcast would judge his results, and the latest signals are that NBCU CEO Steve Burke is not looking to make a change leadership, valuing the stable culture that Meyer has led for more than a decade.
Studio executives quietly point out that Universal has been consistently profitable, even if the profits last year were not as high as Wall Street demands.
For Meyer's part, he is planning to stick with the executives he chose to pick movies and lead the studio, Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley, according to an individual with knowledge of his thinking.
Neither Universal Pictures nor Comcast would comment for this story.
The Comcast officials have shown they're willing to make changes. NBCUniversal President and CEO Jeff Zucker didn't survive the transition, and neither did NBCUniversal Television Chairman Jeff Gaspin.
Like pretty much every other studio, Universal had a slow start at the box office this year. Its first movie of 2011, Ron Howard film "The Dilemma," grossed $67 million worldwide on an estimated budget of $70 million.
There have been some modest successes — the Matt Damon movie "The Adjustment Bureau" has grossed $108.7 million worldwide on a $50.2 million negative cost, and Christopher Meledandri family film "Hop" has taken in $84.3 globally on a $63 million production cost and is still going strong.
But bombs continue to hamper the studio. Last weekend, $50 million James Franco/Natalie Portman period comedy "Your Highness" performed dismally, opening in sixth place with just $9.4 million.
Going back a bit further, Meledandri's "Despicable Me" — a $528.4 million global hit — proved to be a revelation, showing that, perhaps, Universal could compete with DreamWorks Animation and Disney-Pixar in the 3D animation business.
Short of that, however, the studio has been bereft of a big hit since the last "Fast and Furious" movie, which debuted to $71 million in April of 2009 — right before a disastrous summer of 2009 for Universal that would ultimately cost film-studio co-chairs David Linde and Marc Shmuger their jobs, but spare Meyer.
"They've been going through a dry spell," a former high-ranking studio executive told TheWrap, adding that the probable success of "Fast Five" will be good for Universal in a number of ways.
"It's one of those things where success brings more success, and it kind of gets everybody feeling confident again, gets everybody recommitted to their jobs and each other, and I think under new ownership, it couldn't happen at a better time."
On Jan. 29, Comcast took control of NBCUniversal. The company's focus on fixing the television side of the business might give Meyer a little breathing room — especially with hits coming up.
Meyer has been president of the studio for 16 years and knows the importance of the "Fast and the Furious" franchise. It has grossed nearly $955 million. And the studio is so confident in "Fast Five's pending success, it has already enlisted Chris Morgan, writer on the past three installments, to pen a sixth installment in the franchise.
"Fast Five" premieres in Rio de Janeiro on Friday. (Universal execs were in transit to that location Wednesday.) And more than two weeks from its U.S. premiere, "Fast Five" has some rather conspicuously awesome tracking data attached to it, with 83 percent of males older than 25 recording awareness of the film, and fully 57 percent of that demo recording "definite interest" in seeing it, according to tracking firm NRG.
Also among that male demo: 24 percent rank the film as their "first choice."
"Good for them," a rival studio marketing executive told TheWrap. "They kept that franchise alive and it's a stupid franchise to start with — somehow, businesswise, they did a good job."
But that executive said, "You'd have to be an idiot not to market this right." He said the studio just needs to tell the consumer it's more of the same, except in Brazil. "That's enough of a new thing."
Clearly, Universal is hoping to avoid a summer as dismal as 2009's. That summer started well, with, in fact, "Fast and Furious." But it crumbled with flops like "Land of the Lost," which grossed $69 million on its estimated budget of $100 million, and Judd Apatow comedy-drama "Funny People," which grossed $71.5 million and had a budget listed by the studio at $75 million.
At the end of the year, Meyer fired Universal Pictures' co-chairs, Mark Shmuger and David Linde, replacing them with Chairman Fogelson and Co-chair Langley.
A marketing chief at another studio guessed that Meyer will follow Shmuger and Linde out the gate.
That executive looked toward next year's "Battleship," based on the Hasbro game, and predicted bad things.
"It's an expensive, massively terrifying movie," the executive said.
Sharon Waxman contributed reporting to this story.