Thanks to the huge, $117 million opening for Fast & Furious 6, Memorial Day weekend set a new box-office record. The three days saw a combined $323 million in ticket sales for the top 10 films, including another big sequel, The Hangover Part III, which underperformed with $51 million.
Furious 6’s success was expected, to a degree. The 12-year-old franchise consistently performs well—2011’s Fast Five took in more than $200 million in domestic ticket sales alone—using high-profile casting switch-ups, in addition to the requisite muscle cars and explosions, to expand its fan base. Yet more than those bulging biceps and motorcycle flips, Furious 6 owes its weekend haul to its singular ability to attract an audience that reflects America’s shifting demographics.
It does that by looking, as they say, just like us. The Fast & Furious films may have the most ethnically diverse cast of any blockbuster franchise. The latest installment features black, Hispanic, and Asian actors such as Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, John Ortiz, and Sung Kang in key roles, alongside Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Samoan-American) and Vin Diesel, who jokingly says he has “ambiguous ethnicity.” “We’re the Benetton of casting,” Jeffrey Kirchenbaum, Universal Pictures’ (CMCSA) co-president of production, told the entertainment news site TheWrap in May. Moviegoers took notice. Latinos made up 32 percent of the film’s opening weekend audience. Whites were 29 percent; blacks, 22 percent; and Asians, 13 percent. “It’s very rare to see a film with such a low percentage of white viewers score over $100 million in a weekend,” says Gitesh Pandya, who runs the movie-tracking site Box Office Guru.
Universal created a savvy marketing campaign capitalizing on the movie’s multiethnic appeal. “The cast’s popularity among different demographics allowed the studio to broaden its ability to engage its audience,” says Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer for the National Association of Theater Owners. “I would have coffee with my mother-in-law and see tons of ads for the film during her telenovelas,” says Kellvin Chavez, founder of the entertainment site Latino-Review, referring to the Spanish-language soap operas that cater to Hispanic females. (That, too, appears to have paid off; 49 percent of the film’s opening weekend audience was female, rare for an action film and an increase from the previous installment’s 44 percent.) And Diesel and Rodriguez made a joint appearance at the Billboard Latin Music Awards in April to help promote the film. Chavez notes that Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the moviegoing audience. “We make up about 17 percent of the U.S. population, but we’re 26 percent of moviegoers,” he says.
Universal also coordinated a widespread social media campaign timed to the release of Furious 6’s first trailer during the Super Bowl, enlisting the help of stars such as The Rock (4.8 million Twitter followers), Ludacris (7.6 million), and Diesel (42 million Facebook (FB) fans). The film gained 844,000 new “likes” on its Facebook page the following week, more than double that of any other movie that aired an ad during the big game. “We’ve learned that when you market a film with this kind of broad demographic appeal, you have to target everybody,” says Nikki Rocco, president of distribution for Universal.
Most studios play up secrecy and keep a tight lid on movie-related leaks, but Universal has opened up this franchise to its diverse fans, allowing them to feel as if they have some stake in its success. The movie’s title was chosen in an online poll. The appearance of The Rock in the previous installment, Fast Five, was the result of fan feedback, as was Rodriguez’s return in Furious 6. “We’re trying to remove the studio filter as much as possible, which is a little scary because you’re ceding control,” Michael Moses, Universal’s co-president for marketing, told the New York Times last February. The closer connection with viewers is paying off. “People can see themselves in the movie,” Pandya says. “That keeps them coming back.” They won’t have to wait too long: Fast & Furious 7 is set to open in July 2014. God bless America.