"Fast & Furious" went from zero to an estimated $72.5 million so fast this weekend that it crashed through box-office records and astounded naysayers who doubted the film would ever be produced.
And with year-to-date box office about 5 percent ahead of last year at this time — with $2.39 billion — there are already predictions that 2009 could reach $10 billion.
Not only has Universal’s $80 million car action feature claimed the biggest box-office debut of 2009 so far — outpacing last week’s "Monsters vs. Aliens’" $58 million — the film marks the biggest April weekend in box-office history and the studio’s biggest three-day opening.
"Fast" stars Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez and director Justin Lin are also enjoying their biggest opening weekends. According to The Hollywood Reporter*, Universal shelled out approximately $25 million to bring Diesel and Walker back for the fourth installment in the "Fast" franchise. It looks like that was money well spent.
"Fast’s" success is quite a feat considering that the film had to overcome several hurdles to get onto the screen. Universal Pictures distribution president Nikki Rocco said many of her colleagues laughed when she pushed the studio to produce a fourth "Fast" film.
"I attribute it to our production department being smart enough to say we’re going to make a fourth one and we’re going to make it great. And they did make it great by bringing the cast back and writing a good story," Rocco said.
The first two installments, 2001’s "The Fast and the Furious" and 2003’s "2 Fast 2 Furious" did well. Both took the No. 1 spots in their summer opening weekends, grossing $40 million and $50 million, respectively.
But the franchise seemed to have run out of gas when the third installment, "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" shifted into third place in June 2006 with $20 million. The film was bested by auto-themed competitor "Cars," from Disney, and Paramount’s "Nacho Libre."
"Fast & Furious" has now made more in its opening weekend than "Tokyo Drift’s" total domestic take. Of course, "Tokyo Drift" didn’t feature any of the original cast members, except for a brief cameo by Vin Diesel toward the end of the film.
The secret to "Fast’s" success may well be its April release date. Originally scheduled to open in June, Rocco, Universal president of marketing and distribution Adam Fogelson, and president of marketing Eddie Egan pushed the studio to release "Fast" three months earlier.
"We saw an opportunity in April and we knew we would own the marketplace," Rocco said. "’Monsters vs. Aliens’ we always figured would be a big film, but it’s also a family film. We took advantage of the competitive environment and changed our strategy."
Indeed by opening in April — traditionally a slow time at the box office — Universal avoided competing with other PG-13 and PG action tentpole’s like its own "Land of the Lost," DreamWorks’ "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," and Warner Bros.’ "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."
"I think this release date was perfect," said Media by Numbers’ Paul Dergarabedian. "They turned this into a summer-style opening at the beginning of April. We haven’t really seen anything like this. It certainly may embolden studios to do this more. This really says that you can have a huge hit any time of year."
Meanwhile, "Monsters vs. Aliens" took a steep 44 percent drop in ticket sales to land at No. 2 with $33.5 million. Sales for "The Haunting in Connecticut" also plummeted 58 percent into No. 3 with $9.5 million and "Knowing" slipped 45 percent garnering $8.1 million. The only other wide opener this weekend, Miramax’s R-rated comedy "Adventureland," bowed quietly, with $6 million in sixth place.
Dergarabedian said 44 percent is actually not a bad drop for "Monsters" because it’s core audience, parents and children, rushed out to see it opening weekend. A big plummet for "Haunting" is also to be expected because horror films usually drop significantly in their second weekend. Ticket sales for "Friday the 13th" dropped over 80 percent in its second week of release after opening with $40.5 million on Valentine’s Day weekend.
Dergarabedian noted that if the box office continues its upward trajectory, we could conclude 2009 with the first $10 billion year in box-office history.
"The top two films alone added up to over $100 million this week," he said. "Last year at this point box-office revenues were down 1.73 percent and attendance was down almost 5 percent. A year later, we have revenues up 14.5 percent and attendance up nearly 13 percent. I’ve never seen anything like it."