“F9,” the ninth entry in the “Fast and Furious” franchise, is set up as the latest film tagged as the savior of theaters. It comes on top of “A Quiet Place Part II,” another sequel, which has already done yeoman’s work in showing that a conventional (at least in 2021 terms, with a shortened window) release can find significant success.
Since the first film in 2001, the “Fast and Furious” franchise has grossed over $2 billion in the U.S. (adjusted to 2021 numbers), and more than $7 billion worldwide. The two most recent in the series ranked #3 worldwide in their years of release, and #1 outside the U.S.
The “Fast” series has now reached the point where budgets are reaching $200 million per film, similar to the top Marvel, James Bond, and Star Wars releases. Though not usually elevated to the same social media attention as most films in those other dominions, it is every bit as lucrative and arguably possesses broader fan support and a greater certainty of success than many releases in rival series. The hope for “F9,” with nearly $300 million grossed so far (nearly 75 percent of which from China, with many countries still yet to open), is that it will extend what “Quiet” has revitalized.
Unlike most top franchises, the ‘Fast’ saga’s roots begin in this century. (Yes, Universal licensed the title from Roger Corman, who’d released a 1954 film called “The Fast and the Furious,” but there is otherwise no connection with that film to the current franchise.) “A Quiet Place,” of course, is quite recent (2018). Its sequel is the biggest grossing release since theaters started reopening last September, and like most other top ones, it is part of a franchise.
“F9” should open bigger than ‘Quiet Place Part II’ and likely ultimately gross more than what that film will finish with (both likely to be around $150 million or more). That’s critical for theaters. But there’s a problem here, and one that concerns all decision makers in the film business.
Put simply — is it likely that future series like these can be produced for theaters?
The reality is that, for better or worse the theatrical film business is run on franchises. But that creates a problem — they need to be created from something original to begin with.
Neither “Quiet” nor “Fast” began as a series starter. “Fast” was a lucky accident. Director Rob Cohen (“Daylight,” “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story”) had just made “The Skulls” with Paul Walker. Cohen was set to make an unspecified action film with producer Neil Moritz. With Walker’s input, they came up with the idea of setting the film in the world of illegal street racing, with an LA cop infiltrating the scene and finding himself attracted to it.
Vin Diesel was signed, a mid-range budget (adjusted) of $55 million was set. It opened in June 2001 to $40 million ($60 adjusted), which made it the eighth biggest opening weekend of that summer.
The franchise gods then smiled: Atypically for a stand-alone action film, “The Fast and the Furious” reached $144 million domestic. That was a more than 3.5X multiple. Then, adding in foreign results, it grossed over $200 million. That’s terrific for a film with an initial budget that was little more than a quarter of that cost. Then it was an elevated DVD seller, reinforcing the notion that a sequel was justified.
The twists and turns (including the tragedy of Walker’s death in 2013) leading to this point are a case study of a studio figuring out how to create an annuity. But the relevant fact is that a sleeper original film turned to gold.
Would Universal take such a chance now? For that level of budget, it is far less certain. For a movie to be greenlit, particularly one without major stars or a surefire broader media tie-in, it increasingly needs to be seen as something to build on, not just exist as a one-time offering.
With a lower budget ($22 million) and John Krasinski directing and co-starring with wife Emily Blunt, “Quiet” had a shot at such consideration. Of note, however: when Paramount was approached with the project, their initial instinct was to make it part of their “Cloverfield” franchise before deciding to make it a stand-alone film.
The original and effective genre content in the film, plus smart marketing aided by strong reviews, particularly for a horror-related film, and an effective premiere at South by Southwest all aided its April 2018 opening of $50 million. It then also went on to a multiple 3.5 times its opening weekend and a similarly strong international run.
So naturally, a sequel was considered. Krasinski initially demurred. Co-writer Scott Beck and his partner Bryan Woods never agreed, with Beck pointedly saying his preference was to build on the success by coming up with other original screenplays. (The two currently are directing a sci-fi genre film for Sony with Adam Driver and Ariana Greenblatt).
But “Quiet II” reinforces the idea that franchises are the surest way to success. The first film proved, at least in pre-COVID times, a good fresh film can break out. But even then it was high-risk.
That brings us to summer 2021. With most studios and three key outside players (Netflix, Amazon, and Apple) engaged in a titanic battle to see who emerges as winners in streaming, their incentive is to elevate original films for their services. We saw this over the weekend when two quite viable original films for theaters — “Fatherhood” (originally Sony, sold to Netflix) and Pixar’s “Luca” (exclusively on Disney+) — skipped them.
So the incentive to position similar films, particularly ones like “Quiet,” away from theaters will increase. For more expensive ones like “Fast,” it’s harder to assume it would be made today without a guaranteed franchise. Plus the risk is that the elements that made it a hit in the first place might have been compromised trying to build it up as one.
As we see the excellent results for “Quiet,” and likely even better ones for “F9,” issues loom for theaters. One, as well as these films do, it will likely be below their predecessors — particularly worldwide. Two, and more importantly, is that the absence of a wide swath of non-franchise films will leave a big hole in annual box office revenues. Three, related but crucial on its own, some of those originals like these two films then become staples for theaters. Four, their grosses argue against non-franchise efforts.
It’s hard to see theaters thriving, or even surviving, long term if somehow this problem isn’t confronted.