EXCLUSIVE: No one’s been harder on Universal than me for all its recent years of misses and no hits (if you don’t count Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me and Hop). So I’m relieved that the studio has a big fat blockbuster overseas in Fast Five, which releases into North American theaters this Friday as the fifth installment of the very popular street racing franchise. But here’s what really gives me reason to think Universal might be back on the right track: what’s planned for Fast Six. No studio has ever dared to change the genre of a successful franchise, but I’ve learned that’s exactly what chairman Adam Fogelson and co-chairman Donna Langley are plotting. It’s a bold and provocative move. In summary, I like it.
It’s already known that Universal has started Chris Morgan — the screenwriter of Fast Five as well as The Fast And The Furious 3: Tokyo Drift, and Fast & Furious 4 — on the script for the sixth installment as part of his new production deal at the studio. But Morgan is also a great scripter of the crime-thriller genre, like Wanted. So what Fast Five sets up nicely is a Fast Six whose plot revolves around a major robbery. And Universal’s intent is to transform the street-racing franchise into a series of heist films.
It was Universal’s previous administration of chairman Marc Shmuger and co-chairman David Linde who put the original cast back together on Fast & Furious and then enjoyed a huge opening for what was then seen as a refreshed franchise. But Fogelson and Langley saw a roadblock ahead when they took over the studio: How long would or could this franchise last as is? “The question putting Fast Five and Fast Six together for us was: Can we take it out of being a pure car culture movie and into being a true action franchise in the spirit of those great heist films made 10 or 15 years ago?” Fogelson told me in an interview three weeks ago.
The studio honchos agreed that the next installments had to be less about street racing and about more inclusive subject matter. “We’ve heard so many people say, ‘I’ve never seen one, and I’ve never wanted to see one,’ about the Fast franchise,” Fogelson said. “So if these movies were still about street racing, there was probably a ceiling on how many people would buy tickets. We wanted to see if we could raise it out of about racing and make car driving ability just a part of the movie, like those great chases in The French Connection, The Bourne Identity, The Italian Job,” Fogelson explained. With Dodge as a partner, “Our strategy behind one of the biggest bets we’ve ever made is that the business has gone so far towards CG action every weekend, that we really believe creating a movie with real action and real cars will be amazing stuff to people excited by seeing something real.”
Fogelson called Fast Five “the transitional movie.” The franchise has moved from Mexico and then Tokyo and now to Rio De Janeiro, where all the Universal biggies traveled last week for the film’s premiere. I don’t think it’s giving away anything to reveal that the new pic is not primarily about racing anymore. But if you think so, then DON’T READ ON! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) plays a federal agent assigned to track down Paul Walker and the rest of the Fast team who sprung Vin Diesel from police custody. Now all the Fast guys are on the run, and will commit a crime, and Rock is right behind them. This movie again puts together most of the original cast plus some cast members from all of the prior four films. Fogelson says Johnson came to Universal seeking to become part of the franchise, and not only is he pivotal to the plot in Fast Five pitted against Vin, but he also wants to appear in and be integral to the action in Fast Six.
“This franchise has undergone more interesting twists and turns than any franchise I know of,” Fogelson said. “The first one was exciting because of the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic makeup of the cast, which drew over-indexes among Hispanics and Asians and African-American audiences. Then Vin went off doing other stuff, but the sequel still managed a $50M opening and became a mega-hit. Then Tokyo Drift was done for a lower price and it did far better internationally and less domestic. Most studios would have considered the franchise finished.
“But we went and got Vin to do a cameo. That last scene when audiences saw him was explosive. All of us sitting in that test screening in Chatsworth realized the franchise wasn’t over. We said, ‘Let’s get started.’ And so bringing in the original cast was a mega-win. So we went off to get the original players and the fourth pic opened to a humongous $71M. That was the first to open the first weekend in April. Before then, Fast has always always been a summer film. But now we had the highest opening weekend ever in April.”
Universal is trying to manage expectations for Fast Five and its domestic opening on April 29, so it’s low-balling hopes for at least a $50M to $60M opening. It’s done way better than expected overseas, where it’s opened in a few territories already, but sequels do best internationally. As for Fast Five domestically, “Based on screenings, this is the highest-testing movie in the franchise so far,” Fogelson noted. “But we’ve absolutely left perfect room for where we want to go with this franchise. I don’t want to give away too much, but there are a lot of surprises at the end of Fast Five involving one of the biggest characters of the previous movies which will set up the franchise now as a series of heist action films.”