LOS ANGELES — Hoping to transform one of its few successful film series into a top-tier global franchise, Universal Pictures has refueled “Fast and Furious” with an international backdrop, a bigger production budget and a new genre.
Audiences will witness the results of that strategy Friday when “Fast Five” debuts as the first of Hollywood’s summer season releases. The movie abandons the world of illegal street races and embraces the “Oceans 11”-like world of heist films. Characters from all four previous films reunite not to cross a finish line, but for “one last job” to steal $100 million from a crime lord in Rio de Janeiro.
Over the last decade, Universal built the “Fast” series with a singular focus on the underground car racing scene, and fans have consistently turned out, despite a rotating cast. The stars have included Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Tyrese Gibson.
The studio was worried that another repetitive sequel wouldn’t have the horsepower to draw new audiences, so it decided to make wholesale changes to the fifth installment.
“We had a lot of conversations about what we needed do to create longevity and recognized that the core theme of car racing counterculture had run its course,” said Universal Co-Chairman Donna Langley.
It’s a risky move, given that the “Fast and Furious” films have been consistently profitable. But in the go-big-or-go-home world of contemporary moviemaking, that’s no longer enough. Universal, which has fewer film series popular around the world than the other top Hollywood studios, believes it can turn the latest movie into the kind of summer “tentpole” that generates even bigger returns.
“Our hope is to turn what has been the biggest car-racing franchise into a huge action franchise that’s appealing regardless of whether or not you care about cars or the previous films,” Universal Chairman Adam Fogelson said.
The primary ingredient in any modern tentpole is global appeal, and “Fast Five” was designed from the outset for that purpose. The film takes place entirely in Rio, where a splashy premiere with press from all over the world was held April 15.
To signal that the new film is truly an event, Universal brought together cast members from each of the four movies for the first time. Diesel reprises his role as a car-loving ex-con and Walker as a lawman-turned-criminal dating Diesel’s sister, played by Jordana Brewster. To assist in their heist, the trio recruits characters played by Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Sung Kang, all of whom are familiar to “Fast” fans.
The studio upped the talent budget further by hiring Dwayne Johnson as a federal marshal who ends up going mano-a-mano with Diesel.
Of course, cars are still a big part of “Fast Five,” and its over-the-top action sequences are built around them. But the filmmakers settled on heists as a device that could justify reuniting the characters. “The heist movie and car movie are not that hard to meld together,” producer Neal Moritz said. “Our feeling was that we could do the younger version of ‘Ocean’s 11.’”
Doing that required a big step-up in budget. “Fast Five” went into production with a budget of $170 million, according to three people familiar with the matter, who were not authorized to discuss financial details of the film. A Universal spokeswoman said the actual cost was $125 million.
Further increasing Universal’s risk is that the studio has no co-financing partner as it did on 2009’s “Fast & Furious” and 2006’s “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.”
If “Fast Five” matches the $353-million worldwide gross of the last film, the studio will make only a modest profit, given its increased budget. However, the movie already has a lot of momentum overseas, where it has collected $24 million in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and South Korea since launching last week. Pre-release surveys indicate that it might exceed the $71-million debut of “Fast & Furious” in the U.S. and Canada this weekend, which would make it the biggest opening of 2011 so far.
The tracking polls indicate huge interest among young males, particularly Latinos and African Americans, the same audience that has been driving the entire series. Interest is much smaller, but still significant, among women, and Universal executives are optimistic that a subplot about family could draw more females than came to previous “Fast” movies.
Still, 2011 has been a dismal year at the box office so far, with ticket sales down more than 20 percent. A number of movies have opened below what pre-release polls indicated, and Universal executives know that people are seeing fewer trailers and that momentum isn’t in their favor.
“We’re hoping for ourselves and the health of the industry that this is the film that reverses what has been an underperforming marketplace,” said Eddie Egan, Universal’s president of marketing.
Five years ago, few would have guessed that a “Fast and Furious” sequel would kick off Hollywood’s busiest moviegoing season. With no cast members from the first two lined up for a third film, the studio originally considered releasing “Tokyo Drift” on DVD only. It ended up doing decent business in theaters, however, and in exchange for Diesel’s appearing in a cameo role in that film, Universal agreed to write the fourth movie around Diesel, who hadn’t appeared since the original.
That script turned into 2009’s “Fast & Furious,” whose box-office take was more than twice that of “Tokyo Drift.” That surprised many in Hollywood, as Diesel’s star wattage had faded with a number of flops since the original “Fast” in 2001.
Today, the actor has turned things around enough to be a key part of the marketing campaign for “Fast Five.” Universal debuted the first trailer for the film on Diesel’s Facebook page, which has 22.3 million fans.
And although Diesel and the other stars have not signed deals to appear in another “Fast” movie, Universal is fully prepared to make a fifth sequel. “Fast Five,” in fact, has an epilogue that teases a key plot point for a follow-up.
“We’re fully focused on being ready for another chapter and are already well into discussions on what it will be,” Fogelson said.
And for anyone who thinks heist movies could soon become as tired as racing films, Moritz said, the sixth “Fast and Furious” film, aimed for 2013, probably would take another creative detour.
“We think what we have is great characters who can work in a lot of different genres, so long as they involve cars,” he said.