Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA ) /Universal's Fast & Furious 7, which was originally scheduled to hit theaters this July, suffered a major blow last November when star Paul Walker, who played lead character Brian O'Conner, died in a tragic car accident.
After a five-month hiatus, Universal restarted filming in April. Since several of Walker's scenes had not been filmed yet, Universal employed Walker's brothers Cody and Caleb, along with Peter Jackson's Weta Digital special effects studio, to digitally recreate Brian O'Conner. According to The Hollywood Reporter, some of Cody and Caleb's features will be digitally combined with CGI face-replacement technology to complete the film, which will be released on April 10, 2015.
The new digital effects, the delays, and the refilming of certain scenes will also cause the film to exceed its original budget of $200 million. The Hollywood Reporter noted that Universal's insurer, Fireman's Fund, could pay the studio $50 million in insurance claims related to Walker's death.
That puts the minimum price tag of Fast & Furious 7 at $250 million -- twice as expensive as Fast Five (2011) and $90 million more than its predecessor, Fast & Furious 6 (2013). It would also be the most expensive Hollywood film since Disney's (NYSE: DIS ) John Carter (2012).
Universal's determination to complete Fast & Furious 7 highlights three interesting points about the film business -- the importance of key actors, the value of the franchise to the company, and the lasting appeal of the street racing genre.
The show must go on
Although it's commonly said that "the show must go on" when tragedy and disaster strikes in show business, it's a tough call in modern Hollywood blockbusters, when an entire franchise can depend on a handful of actors. That's why studios like Universal and Disney have insurance -- in 2012, an insurer reportedly paid Disney $10 million to $15 million after Robert Downey, Jr. broke his ankle and delayed the filming of Iron Man 3 for three weeks.
In addition to the emotional ramifications amid the loss of a talented actor, when a star dies during filming, the film has to be rewritten, refilmed, or digitally altered. When Brandon Lee died on the set of The Crow (1994), his face was digitally inserted over another actor's. The same approach was used when Oliver Reed died while filming Gladiator (2000). These methods were time-consuming and costly, but ultimately kept the films in one piece.
A franchise is worth more than a single film
Universal's dedication to keeping the Fast & Furious franchise also speaks volumes about the importance of the franchise. Simply take a look at how fast and furiously it has grown over the past 13 years:
Those six films have grossed $2.4 billion at the box office on a combined budget of $569 million -- an impressive return considering that some critics skewered the original film as "preposterous," trying "too hard to be cool," and a "bad, bad movie."
Only one film, Tokyo Drift, earned less than its preceding films, because neither Paul Walker nor Vin Diesel -- generally considered the heart and soul of the franchise -- starred in the film. That dependable return on investment, which culminated in Fast & Furious 6's whopping box office total of $769 million, more than justified keeping the franchise alive for as long as possible.
That justification reaches beyond the main film series as well. Over the past decade, the series has spawned video games, toys, and model kits, and became the inspiration for racing and modding groups across the world. Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson has also mentioned the possibility of starring in a Fast & Furious spin-off film -- indicating that the franchise could last for years beyond the seventh film.
Fast & Furious is still king of the streets
Last but not least, Universal has proven repeatedly that the film's deceptively simple formula can't be easily replicated.
In a previous article, I noted that Disney and Dreamworks Pictures' Need for Speed had a chance of becoming the next great street racing franchise. Need for Speed fared well at the box office, grossing $203 million worldwide on a budget of $66 million, but it fared terribly with critics, garnering a 23% rating at Rotten Tomatoes -- lower than any of the Fast & Furious films. It's currently unclear if Disney will pursue a sequel.
In fact, if we look back over the past 10 years of films, the Fast & Furious franchise has ruled the genre uncontested. There have been more serious takes on the "cars and crime" genre, like Drive (2011) and more serious racing films like Rush (2013), but nothing has come close to matching the arguably cheesy, testosterone-packed mayhem of the Fast & Furious films.
Crossing the finish line
In closing, I think that Fast & Furious 7 will be a box office hit, and deservedly so. Having Paul Walker's brothers help complete his final film is a fitting tribute to the man, a great way to give closure to his fans across the world, and a solid way to preserve his legacy by keeping the franchise alive. That, in my humble opinion, is definitely worth $250 million.
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