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'Fast Five' burns rubber at box office

Amy Kaufman
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — "Fast Five" ran over the competition at the box office this weekend, shifting ticket sales into high gear for the first time this year.

Summer's first big-budget studio tent pole grossed $83.6 million, according to an estimate from distributor Universal Pictures. That marks the biggest opening weekend of the year, speeding past "Rio's" $39.2 debut last month.

The movie lapped the other two new films that debuted in wide release this weekend. Not that many moviegoers showed up to "Prom," which collected a weak $5 million. The animated sequel "Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil" also fared poorly, opening to far less than 2005's "Hoodwinked," with a soft $4.1 million take.

Heading into the weekend, the major question in the movie industry was whether or not "Fast Five" would be able to buck this year's box-office trend, which has so far reflected a depressed marketplace. Even though pre-release audience surveys had indicated that the film could gross over $75 million on its first weekend in theaters, the movie's distributor, Universal Pictures, cautiously estimated a $60 million opening. Now the movie has helped pushed the box office out of its slump, with ticket sales up 52 percent this weekend as compared with the same weekend last year.

While "Fast Five's" impressive debut is good news for the industry, it's also important for Universal. The "Fast" series is one of the studio's only franchises, and it invested a lot in the most recent fifth film. Universal spent at least $170 million to produce the movie, according to three people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to discuss the film's budget. A studio spokeswoman said the actual cost was $125 million.

The studio made a number of changes to the "Fast" franchise with its latest film, namely switching its genre from a pure underground-racing movie to a heist film. The movie reunites stars from all four "Fast" movies, including Paul Walker and Vin Diesel, and introduces newcomer Dwayne Johnson. "Fast Five" also has a different international setting, taking place in Rio de Janeiro. As a result, "Fast Five" had the best opening of any film in the franchise, whose fourth film brought in $71 million on its premiere in 2009.

"Every move we made was carefully planned out, from the concept to how we cast it to the dating," said Universal's president of domestic distribution, Nikki Rocco, referring to the studio's decision to move "Fast Five"s release date from June to April. "It's pure entertainment, and having a movie that's so ethnically diverse is a positive."

Indeed, as with previous "Fast films," the movie was especially popular with minorities — 33 percent of the audience was Latino, while 19 percent was African-American. But it seemed that everyone who saw the film loved it, as the movie received an average grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore. But strong word-of-mouth may not be all that important for the action flick, anyway. "Fast & Furious" in 2009 got an average A-minus grade, but ticket sales still fell 62 percent on its second weekend in theaters.

In any event, it's likely that the film will spawn yet another sequel. The studio has already entered into discussions about a sixth film, which would be aimed for 2013.

Overseas, "Fast Five" opened in 14 foreign markets this weekend, collecting $45.3 million and bringing its international tally to $81.4 million. The film took the No. 1 spot in 10 countries, but performed best in Russia, where it collected $11.5 million, and Germany, where it made $10.2 million.

"Prom," the first film to be put into production by Walt Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross, did not resonate as strongly with audiences. The coming-of-age story featuring a cast of unknown young actors was aimed squarely at teenage girls. The movie succeeded in attracting young females — 82 percent of the crowd were women, and 66 percent were under 18 — but not in the numbers the studio had hoped.

If there's any upside for Disney after a slow opening weekend, it's that the movie was inexpensive to produce — it had a budget of about $8 million. And word of mouth on the film may not be terrible, as those who saw it gave it an average grade of B-plus.

"When you make these films for a little bit of money, you're always hoping it's like 'Insidious,' " Walt Disney Studios' president of distribution Chuck Viane said, referring to the inexpensively produced horror film which has so far grossed almost $50 million. "Obviously, we made a movie for a price point with a very specific audience — and everyone we wanted turned up, there just weren't as many of them as we hoped."

"Hoodwinked Too!" received that same audience-rating but was also only able to attract a specific demographic. An overwhelming 71 percent of the audience was under the age of 12.

After the film's poor opening weekend, it seems unlikely that "Hoodwinked Too!" will be able to replicate the success of its 2005 predecessor, "Hoodwinked!" which collected $110 million worldwide. The moderately budgeted movie, released by Weinstein Co. and produced with animation company Kanbar Entertainment, was likely overshadowed this weekend by two other family films still in theaters, "Rio" and "Hop."

"Rio," which took the No. 1 spot at the box office over the last two weekends, continued to do well, adding $14.4 million to its total, which now stands at $103.6 million.

In limited release, Warner Herzog's 3-D documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" opened in five theaters and grossed $127,500 for a solid per-theater average of $25,500. "Dylan Dog: Dead of the Night," starring Brandon Routh, grossed a soft $884,625 in 875 theaters.

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