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Big, Dumb & Loud: How to Make a Blockbuster Franchise Last

By the time you read this Fast Five may have crossed $100 million domestic. If not, its total worldwide haul has surpassed $180 million, easily earning back its production budget of $125 million. Fast Five may be starting a new trend, rather expanding a phenomenon not known outside of the horror genre: never-ending sequels.

Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Saw must have 100 pictures between them. When it comes to scary movies, including Scary Movie, audiences can expect the cow to be milked long after the udders have shriveled up. Seriously, even when a horror franchise is failing studios will continue to crank out an assembly line into theaters, or go straight to DVD if they have to. Now, an action movie has jumped into the mix.

Not since Star Wars have we seen a non-horror get this far and be profitable. Fast Five and the installment immediately before it had a few aces in the hole that drove its success. I’ve highlighted a precious five of them.

PG-13 Rating

An "R" rating is a nail in the coffin most of the time; that’s why horror movies rarely cross the $100-million milestone. Not only is their subject matter unappealing to the general audience, but those who would love to be creeped out by the terror are too young to get in the theater without an adult present. These kids either wait for the DVD or buy a ticket to a "PG" flick and sneak into the horror instead. Opening strong at the box office still has its repercussions on overall sales in and out of theaters. That is why movies that should obviously be R-rated go for a "PG-13" instead. Take Sucker Punch as a recent example. There is no way the studio was going to risk tickets on an "R" rating given the girl-lead picture was meant to appeal to 13-year-old boys. With some disconcerting editing, Snyder got his lower rating, but it flopped anyway. At least with an "R" it might have taken in a third of the final sales. The makers of Fast Five have maintained consistency from the first to the last. There are always fast cars, a returning character (or a few) and an unwavering "PG-13."


Overdue for a hit

Although blogging, tweeting and Facebook have become a great threat to the sanctity of movie criticism, Americans still like a clear-cut endorsement from the experts on a given movie. Even when it comes to summer blockbusters, solid reviews can boost a take. Iron Man, an obscure superhero movie to begin with, was lead by an ex-boozer and drug user and anchored by Gwyneth Paltrow — not exactly a glowing endorsement. Still, Rotten Tomatoes had the motion picture holding above 90% in positive reviews. It was certified fresh and Americans went to the cinema in droves, creating a new franchise and plenty of knock-offs in the process. Although Fast Five is pure popcorn entertainment, positive reviews gave it that extra boost over the weekend. It turned an 80% Tomatometer into more than $80 million in three days, topping Fast & Furious from two years ago — not a common feat.

Use of New Medium

The Final Destination had its greatest success at its fourth entry because it introduced the same old plot ... but in three dimensions. After opening big with what was supposed to be the closing chapter, Warner Brothers decided to give it another go. We would be enjoying an eighth "Saw" if its opening numbers were as generous domestically and overseas. Fast Five didn’t go for 3D, but it did take off in IMAX, a medium just as expensive to consumers as those cheap glasses we’re forced to wear on post-production jobs. Every movie is trying to makes its comeback using one or both of the gimmicks these days.

Fast Five Action 

Stylized Action Sequences

To be successful, a summer movie can be dumb but it cannot be boring. Fast Five, much like Transformers, gets right to the point in the opening scene. It is a pure action thrill ride from the opening minutes and that is what summer audiences want most. This season is about having fun not joining MENSA. 

Strategic Release Window

Summer movie season isn’t even in summer anymore. What used to kick off on Memorial Day steadily crept to the beginning of May. This year, for the first time, Hollywood kicked off blockbuster season at the end of April. Fast Five was conspicuous in its tactics in choosing a tagline that had nothing to with the plot or a memorable punch line. Instead, Universal went for “Summer begins April 29th.” Usually, April is a dumping ground, but Universal just made it fertile. Expect next year for summer to start a week earlier again, and if that works then one week earlier than that in 2013 until Spring Break becomes the start of the summer season come 2020 at the latest.

Quite frankly, Fast Five is a pretty rare success. The majority of franchises do well to stop at three films. That is usually because sequels tend to make less by the third movie after audiences are sucked into inflating the gross of the first sequel based on the appeal of the original. When that initial sequel does not meet expectations, studio humps cut their losses, tie up loose ends and close the series with a critical and commercial snooze. Yet, The Fast and The Furious was able to resurrect even after a disastrous third outing in “Tokyo Drift.” With a few strategic or perhaps totally accidental moves, the fourth movie ended up being the most successful outing (until Fast Five closes in on the title).

Undoubtedly the sixth movie will mimic the performance of the third, and underwhelm critics and audiences who find the formula stale and ripe for criticism. Until then, enjoy the resurrection of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series. If theory holds, it will be a bigger hit than its predecessors and spawn a couple more of Jack Sparrow’s adventures.


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