How Comcast's 'Fast and the Furious' became a worldwide smash

If you strapped Comcast CEO Brian Robert to a polygraph machine in 2009, when the  company started to pursue Universal, and asked him to rank the studio’s most promising movie properties, I don’t think he would have said The Fast and the Furious

Of course, that’s probably not what you’d ask him. 

You’d ask him why the Golf Channel comes bundled with QVC. 

Or you’d ask him what I once asked Comcast: Why do we lose HBO when it rains?

Anyway, I doubt The Fast and the Furious was on the Comcast cash-cow radar back then, or when the deal closed in 2011. 

Jurassic Park? Absolutely. 

Jason Bourne? For sure. 

Ditto Despicable Me, or the Minions or The Mummy -- heck, Ted 2 probably loomed larger than the Fast/Furious pictures back then. 

The 2009 installment (Fast & Furious) barely made as much as Paul Blart: Mall Cop. The Fast & Furious: Supercharged theme park attraction was on its way to being mothballed (even as Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse ride lived on), and there were no immediate plans to replace it with the Wizarding World of Vin Diesel. 

And yet, the astonishing numbers posted last weekend for The Fate of the Furious show it to be Comcast’s most valuable movie asset. Taking in $532 million, the movie crushed the global opening-weekend box office record that had belonged to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The Fate of the Furious broke the record for opening-weekend overseas revenue -- $432 million, obliterating the old mark held by Jurassic World

The movie is single-handedly doing its part to wipe out the trade deficit -- it set a record for the biggest three-day opening weekend box office in China: $190 million. That’s $90 million more than it made in North America. 

It’s enormously popular with young viewers -- more than half the audience is under 25, so it is well positioned to continue its run of success (two more are already planned). 

And The Fast and the Furious is unique among the top blockbuster franchises -- it’s not fantasy, it’s not sci-fi; it’s contemporary, and it’s completely original. The first script was written to capture the mixed-race, hip-hop, street-rod culture of 1990s Los Angeles. 

That multicultural appeal is still important to its audience -- in North America, it attracts highly diverse crowds. Forty-one percent Caucasian, 26 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African American, 11 percent Asian. Its diversity has always extended beyond the concept and cast (Vin Diesel, Tyrese, Ludacris, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson) to behind-the-camera talent, as well (John Singleton, Justin Lin, and F. Gary Gray have all directed installments). 

If the series shares anything with conventional blockbusters, it’s a tendency --  borrowing a phrase from Allen Iverson -- to become “all swole.”  The Die Hard movies became more preposterous as they evolved, as did Rambo, even Rocky, before Sylvester Stallone and Ryan Coogler brought the franchise back to earth with Rocky Balboa and especially Creed

The Fate of the Furious is showing signs of giganticism -- the budgets are now triple what they were before Comcast took over (and Comcast  has added a new Fast/Furious theme park attraction). The movies are also getting more far-fetched -- in the new one, Vin Diesel uses a muscle car to stop a nuclear-powered submarine, which is something Pierce Brosnan might have done in a forgettable Bond movie. 

And certainly they’re getting longer -- the last couple have been way over two hours. Not that anyone seems to mind. The seventh movie made $1.5 billion, and The Fate of the Furious is tracking to match that. The series seems prepped to defy the laws of diminishing box office returns that define most franchises. 

A recent statistical analysis shows the original Fast and the Furious concept is changing in another way -- the street racing that formed the core of the early movies has given way to more standard violence: fighting, guns. The cars are getting more expensive, but the characters spend less time talking about them. On the other hand, themes of friends and family have become more pronounced -- that’s apparently good for business, too. 

Incidentally, there’s something else analytics experts missed, though they tracked everything from biceps to behinds. In terms of above-the-line talent, these are the baldest movies ever made -- the more bald guys on screen, the more money they make. Diesel and Tyrese are the building blocks, but Fast and Furious didn’t post its first $100 million opening weekend until it added Dwayne Johnson. And it didn’t crack the billion-dollar mark until it added Jason Statham. 

Encouraging news for Fast and Furious fans who are no longer under 25.