With its third weekend in release just finished, Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) and Universal's Furious 7 is now well past $1 billion at the global box office and still has gas in the tank. The sequel is a huge win for Comcast and Universal, and its performance also signals how much the film biz has changed, as well as some big changes that are still unfolding and shaping productions from rival companies like Disney (NYSE:DIS) and Viacom.
The Fast and Furious franchise hits the nitrous button
When the original The Fast and Furious opened in 2001, its first weekend take at the American box office came in at $40 million. The film went on to record sales of $207 million worldwide, with just $62 million of its total gross coming from foreign territories.
Fourteen years and six sequels later, Furious 7 opened to $147 million in North America, setting a new record for best opening weekend in April. To date, the high-octane action sequel has earned roughly $294 million domestically, and roughly $858 million in other territories. It's just the 20th movie in history to surpass $1 billion in unadjusted box office revenue, according to Box Office Mojo, which is even more impressive considering that the box office performance of the third Fast and Furious film could have killed the series.
But the incredible story of the Fast and Furious franchise's ascent involves more than a somewhat unlikely series climbing its way to greatness. It also has to do with the evolution of the international box office.
The changing makeup of the box office
At $68.6 million, Furious 7 established a new opening-day record in China, and the film looks like it's on track to unseat Viacom's Transformers: Age of Extinction to become the country's highest-grossing film on record. Beyond featuring souped-up cars and explosive action scenes, the two megahits have another very important factor in common: Both involved co-production deals with Chinese companies that drove success in the world's second-largest film market.
The Chinese box office continues to grow at a rapid clip, expanding 36% in 2014. It may even overtake the U.S. as the largest movie market within the next several years.
Last year saw Transformers: Age of Extinction became the first blockbuster film to earn more in China ($310 million) than the U.S. ($245 million), and it looks like Furious 7 could become the second. Furious 7 had earned more than $250 million in China over its first eight days there, according to Box Office Mojo. While film companies were already angling for greater presence in China, Comcast's co-production of Furious 7 with China Film Group cements the value in this pursuit, and all but ensures that more films will be tailored to deliver big wins in territories outside the U.S.. One possible result is the production of more action movies that feature a heavy emphasis on cars and chase scenes.
Following Furious 7's incredible opening weekend, Electronic Arts announced a co-production deal with China Movie Channel, Jiaflix, and 1905.com to produce a sequel to the 2014 racing film Need for Speed. While Disney has yet to announce any movies involving street racing, the company has previously partnered with Chinese Company DMG for its Iron Man 3 film, and it's also working with Shanghai Media Group to expand its box-office power in China. One possible co-production for the company is the recently announced Mulan remake.
Furious 7 also points to a box-office future that sees more big films featuring diverse casts. Roughly 75% of the movie's U.S. opening weekend audience reportedly was non-white, with the film's ethnically varied cast and the universal appeal of cars likely playing a big factor in this makeup. As demographics shift in the U.S., and international box office continues to grow in importance, casting is being tailored to maximize box office draw.
Comcast and Universal score a big win in the franchise-building race
While filmed entertainment accounted for just around 20% of Comcast's revenue in the last fiscal year, Furious 7 is still a huge win for the company. Compared to companies like Disney and Time Warner, Comcast has a weaker stable of franchises capable of delivering big wins at the box office and beyond.
Disney and Warner have access to a wealth of comic book properties and other source materials that all but guarantee huge performance, while Comcast and Universal's big-action series are limited to Jurassic Park and Fast and Furious, and its only big-family series is Despicable Me. Furious 7's performance is even more important given the shaky start that Universal got off to in attempting to reboot its classic monster movie properties with the mediocre critical and commercial reception to Dracula: Untold.
The latest supercharged outing proves that the Furious franchise is one of the most powerful properties in the film industry, and puts future entries in good position to be similarly massive. A sequel is already in the works. The series also has the potential to be an asset for Comcast's cable networks, and a big draw at Universal theme parks.
A Fast and Furious ride is set to open at Universal Studios Orlando on June 25, and further incorporation at Universal parks seems likely following the latest film's incredible run. Competing theme parks from Disney are making increased use of high-powered properties like Star Wars, Frozen, and Avatar. For Comcast, elevating one of its own key properties to new heights of success is a big win.
Keith Noonan has no position in any stocks mentioned. He races for pink slips and uses a strategy that involves hitting the nitrous button at just the right moment. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.