Paul Walker, left, and Vin Diesel in "Fast Five." (Jaimie Trueblood / Universal…)
"Fast Five" ran over the competition at the box office this past weekend, shifting movie ticket sales into high gear for the first time this year.
The first big-budget studio tent-pole film of the summer season grossed $83.6 million, according to an estimate from distributor Universal Pictures. That marks the biggest opening of the year, speeding past the $39.2-million debut of 20th Century Fox's "Rio" last month.
"Fast Five," the fifth installment of the popular street-racing franchise, lapped the other two new films that debuted in wide release. Not many moviegoers showed up to Disney's "Prom," which collected a weak $5 million. The animated 3-D sequel "Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil" also fared poorly, opening to $4.1 million — far less than what 2005's "Hoodwinked" took in on its first weekend.
Heading into the weekend, the major question in the movie industry was whether "Fast Five" would be able to buck this year's box-office slump; as of last week, ticket sales in 2011 were down 17% compared to last year. Even though pre-release audience surveys had indicated that the film could gross over $75 million on its first weekend, Universal cautiously estimated a $60-million opening. Now the movie is helping to push the box office out of the doldrums. Ticket sales overall this weekend were up 52% compared to the same weekend last year, and year to date, sales are now off 14% compared to 2010.
Though "Fast Five's" strong debut is good news for the industry, it's particularly significant for Universal. "Fast" is one of the studio's only franchises, and it invested a lot in the 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 publicly. A studio spokeswoman said the cost was $125 million. "Fast Five" had the best opening of any film in the franchise; the fourth installment brought in $71 million on its premiere in 2009.
The studio made a number of changes to the "Fast" franchise with its latest film, namely switching its genre from a pure car-racing movie to a heist film. The movie reunites stars from all four "Fast" movies, including Paul Walker and Vin Diesel, and adds Dwayne Johnson, a newcomer to the series. Unlike the first four films, three of which were set in the U.S. and one in Tokyo, "Fast Five" takes place in Rio de Janeiro.
"Fast Five," which opened overseas ahead of its U.S. premiere, played in 14 foreign markets in the past 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.
"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 the release date of "Fast Five" 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 has a racially diverse cast and was popular with minorities — 33% of the U.S. audience was Latino, while 19% 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. It's likely that the film will spawn another sequel; the studio has already entered into discussions about a sixth film, which would be aimed for 2013.
"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% of the crowd were women, and 66% were under 18 — but not in the numbers the studio had hoped.
If there's any upside for Disney after a slow opening, 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 movie that 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 of B-plus but was able to attract only a specific demographic. An overwhelming 71% of the audience were under age 12.
After the film's poor opening weekend, it seems unlikely that "Hoodwinked Too!" will be able to replicate the success of "Hoodwinked!," which collected $110 million worldwide. The moderately budgeted sequel, released by the 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 previous 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, took in a soft $884,625 in 875 theaters.