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Huge ‘Furious 7’ Bet by Universal Looks Like a Win at the Box Office

The pricey action sequel’s opening could be year’s biggest, breaking the April record and validating the studio’s major wager

Hot cars, a hotter cast and the memory of Paul Walker will be driving “Furious 7,” the latest installment in Universal Pictures’ high-octane action franchise, as it opens in 4,003 theaters across North America beginning Friday.

It’s the studio’s widest domestic opening ever, and this weekend’s rollout in 63 foreign markets and more than 10,500 theaters is a Universal record, too. “Furious 7” will play on 365 IMAX screens in North America and 445 overseas, where it will be shown in 3D, and that combined total is a record as well.

It adds up to a major wager on a monster movie, since “Furious 7” cost $190 million to make with significant marketing costs on top of that. And it looks very much like a winner at this point, with the odds in its favor stacking up.

Tracking for “Furious 7” has been consistently strong with both genders and every age and ethnic group for weeks, ranging between $115 million and $125 million. If new director James Wan and the multi-ethnic cast headed by Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson and newcomer Jason Statham deliver as expected, it will be the biggest opening weekend of the year, over the $85 million February debut of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and the biggest April debut ever, over the $95 million that “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” managed last year.

The rainbow cast has been a major reason the “Fast and Furious” movies have played so well across a wide ethnic range, and this one will too. Hispanics made up 32 percent plurality of the audience for the fifth and sixth films domestically, the most recent of which drove a Memorial Day weekend record $120 million over four days in 2012.

But the cast member who is missing is providing the strongest emotional draw to “Furious 7” for many moviegoers.

“The success of this movie will be a testament to Paul Walker, but it’s certainly bittersweet,” Phil Contrino, senior analyst at BoxOffice.com told TheWrap.

Walker’s death along with his friend Roger Rodas in a fiery auto crash in November 2013 forced Universal Pictures to postpone the film’s rollout, originally set for last July. The studio needed time to replace the 40-year-old star — CGI images and brothers Cody and Caleb stand in — who appeared as cop-turned-street racer Brian O’Conner in all but one of the six previous “Fast and Furious” films.

Fans have been primed to pay homage to the late star by the relentless social media efforts of his Twitter-happy cast mates, and an incredible 53 million Facebook users have “liked” the film, which carries the catch phrase “One Last Ride.”

“Furious 7” was dominating business Wednesday at MovieTickets.com and Fandango, where advances sales were outstripping those of “Captain America 2.”

But perhaps the strongest indicator of the film’s strength is that rival studios have cleared out for the weekend at home and abroad. Radius-Dimension has expanded its low-budget horror film “It Follows” into 1,665 theaters in its third week, but no other film is opening wide.

“Furious 7,” produced by Diesel and Neil Moritz, has the feel of an “event movie,” and if word of mouth is strong, it should play well through the remainder of April. There’s nothing of its scale on the release schedule until May 1, when Disney rolls out Marvel sequel “Avengers: The Age of Ultron.”

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