May 27, 2024

Retooled Car Series Revives Summer Box Office Hopes

That is what should have happened to “The Fast and the Furious” car-racing series five years ago when a third installment, “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” sputtered, selling about $62 million in tickets in North America, or 50 percent less than its predecessor.

But Universal Pictures didn’t give up, and a souped-up fourth movie, “Fast Furious,” showed surprising strength in 2009.

Over the weekend, a new entry, “Fast Five,” rocked Hollywood by selling almost $84 million in tickets, by far the biggest opening of the year and — if the prayers of movie moguls are answered — signaling the beginning of a box-office turnaround.

“Relieved” is one word Adam Fogelson, Universal’s chairman, used to describe his state of mind on Sunday morning. “We made a lot of very specific and very strategic choices that were not obvious.”

Studios and theater owners urgently need a big summer. Domestic box-office revenue has fallen 14 percent in 2011, to about $3 billion, compared with the same period a year earlier, according to, which compiles statistics on ticket sales. Higher prices, particularly for 3-D screenings, have probably kept some people at home. But the likeliest culprit is quality, which many studio executives concede has been lacking in a lot of releases.

The movie industry’s high-stakes summer season traditionally stretches from the first full weekend in May to Labor Day, when studios record about 40 percent of their annual box office revenue. With “Fast Five,” Universal decided to stretch the period, using the marketing slogan “summer starts early.” Ticket sales easily surpassed the record for the weekend, set last year by “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” which took in $33 million.

“Fast Five” is an unusual sequel because of Universal’s fix-on-the-fly approach, but it is as good a marker as any of what the movie capital is counting on in the months ahead: sequels and more sequels. There are 10 this time around, including “Fast Five,” more than there have been in any summer in recent memory.

“They’re stacked one after another after another, which will help give the marketplace momentum,” said Phil Contrino, editor of

Of these films, one in particular is expected to be a multiplex monster — “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” from Warner Brothers. It is the first Potter film to be released in 3-D and finishes out the series.

Expectations are also high for “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” (Walt Disney Studios), “Kung Fu Panda 2” (DreamWorks Animation) and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (Paramount Pictures).

Pixar’s “Cars 2” doesn’t open until June 24 but has already broken one record: the biggest array of related retail merchandise, beating “Star Wars.”

Hollywood is taking some enormous risks in the coming stretch. One of the biggest gambles is “Green Lantern,” a space opera that Warner hopes will put to rest criticisms about the degree to which it has mined its DC Comics library for movie characters. Early buzz has been mixed, with questions about the visual effects and the skin-tight costume and mask worn by its star, Ryan Reynolds.

“There is also the worry of superhero fatigue,” Mr. Contrino said, noting that “Green Lantern” will arrive after Marvel’s “Thor” and 20th Century Fox’s much-anticipated “X-Men: First Class.”

Another question mark is “Cowboys Aliens,” an expensive genre mash-up starring an aging Harrison Ford. It’s an alien movie set in the Old West, and some industry experts fear it could fall flat. On the positive side, the companies behind this picture, DreamWorks Studios and Universal, recently released new marketing materials to positive response.

Nobody needs hits more than Universal, which, despite a few bright spots like “Hop,” was recently labeled “a bomb factory” by the entertainment news site The studio has a new corporate parent, Comcast, which is watching to determine whether management changes are needed.

“The Fast and the Furious” franchise, which made its debut in 2001 as a counterculture car movie, underscores how hard Universal executives are trying.

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