Paul Walker Fans Fuel $100 Million Forecast for ‘Furious 7’ at Box Office

Late star’s death shifts buzz into overdrive on social media and tracking three weeks ahead of April 3 opening

The hot cars, guys and gals of ‘Furious 7” have moved into the box office fast lane, even though their movie’s nationwide debut is still three weeks away.

Sizzling social media and a spectacular new trailer shifted anticipation into high gear this week, but it’s the groundswell of love for the late Paul Walker that is driving pre-release projections of a record-breaking $100 million opening on the April 3 weekend.

“I think you have to acknowledge how profound an effect that’s going to have,” Rentrak senior analyst Paul Dergarabedian told TheWrap Thursday. “You got the feeling that you were watching a family on screen with these films, and fans felt as if they were a real part of that extended family. I think it’s going to be a cultural event.”

“Furious 7,”directed by James Wan, has a good shot at topping the April record of $95 million set last year by “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Dergarabedian said . Tracking puts it at $100 million, and some analysts are even more bullish.

“I think it could go even higher than that, and that’s because of the X factor that Walker’s fans provide” said Dergarabedian.

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-yesar-old star — CGI images and brothers Cody and Caleb will stand in — who appeared as cop-turned-street racer Brian O’Conner in all but one of the six previous “Fast and Furious” films.

Along with Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez, Walker was an anchor in the franchise, which has generated $2.3 billion at the global box office and is Universal’s highest-grossing ever.

“Even without Walker’s death, this would have been a huge movie,” Dergarabedian said. “The momentum of this series has been building since the fifth and sixth films, especially overseas. Hot cars, good-looking guys and girls — it’s not hard to see why they translate.”

“Fast Five” and “Fast and Furious 6” were among the four directed by Justin Lin, who is now filming the next “Star Trek” movie,” and by far the most popular at the box office with $626 million and $789 million worldwide respectively.

An increasingly diverse cast and settings like London, Abu Dhabi and Tokyo have heightened interest and boosted business abroad and at home. In May 2012, “Fast Six” debuted with $160 million for Universal’s best overseas opening weekend ever, while taking in $97 million and driving a record Memorial Day weekend with an audience dominated by Hispanics (32 percent), African-Americans (22 percent) and Asians (13 percent).

Dwayne Johnson, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris and Lucas Black are back, along with writer Chris Morgan, who’s scripted every film. Jason Statham returns from his “Fast 6″ cameo as the baddie and Kurt Russell joins the cast along with Thai martial artist Tony Jaa, UFC fighter Ronda Rousey and Djimon Hounsou. They’re all fast and furious on social media, and that”s making a difference.

With more than 52 million “likes” on Facebook , “Furious 7” is generating more online heat than “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” and this year’s upcoming “Star Wars: Episode VII” and James Bond movies. A stunning trailer, highlighted by cars plummeting from an airplane, spiked anticipation for the opening among fans of the franchise and Walker this week.

“It will be bittersweet,” said Dergarabedian, “but it will be the last chance to see him doing what he loved.”