Going back to 1926’s “The Son of the Sheik,” Hollywood studios have brought films into theaters with success even after the death of their stars. Rudolph Valentino was 31 when he died of a perforated ulcer two weeks before that film’s release. It grossed more than $1 million for United Artists. James Dean was nominated for an Oscar for his role in “Giant,” which reached screens after his 1955 death.
The latest “Fast & Furious,” only partly completed when Walker died, may outdraw the earlier pictures, according to Howard Suber, a professor emeritus at the school of theater, film and television at the University of California Los Angeles. A premature death can add to the mystique of a performer, he said, noting Marilyn Monroe’s enduring fame.
“It was true for Marilyn Monroe and James Dean,” Suber said. “They died young and therefore will live forever in our memories.”
The “Fast & Furious” franchise is Universal’s biggest, with six movies generating $2.38 billion in worldwide ticket sales since 2001, according to researcher Box Office Mojo.
To complete “Fast & Furious 7,” the filmmakers must decide whether and how to use scenes Walker shot before his death, a process that will probably involve script revisions and delays. It was scheduled to be released in July 2014, according to Box Office Mojo.
No decisions have been made, Kori Bernards, a spokeswoman for Universal Pictures, said in an e-mail yesterday. It is important to keep Walker’s memory alive through his disaster-relief charity, Reach Out Worldwide, his family said in a statement.
Universal has halted production indefinitely as the studio and director James Wan consider what do with the film, the entertainment news site TheWrap.com reported.
The Los Angeles-based studio is unlikely to abandon the picture, according to Peter Sealey, a former marketing executive for Columbia Pictures and now a consultant in Sausalito, California.
This year’s “Fast & Furious 6” is the top-grossing film of the series, with $788.7 million in worldwide receipts. The only Universal film to do better in 2013 is “Despicable Me 2.”
The studio has already sunk millions of dollars into making “Fast 7.” “Fast & Furious 6” cost $160 million to produce, the estimate of Box Office Mojo. While Walker was the series’ main protagonist, appearing in five of the six installments, he was part of an ensemble cast that has included Vin Diesel, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Tyrese Gibson.
“They could do a work around,” Sealey said. “Hollywood does not let an actor’s untimely demise shut down a money making machine.”
“Giant” was released by Warner Bros. in 1956 after Dean died in a car accident. Today, 97 percent of reviews compiled by the website RottenTomatoes.com are positive. The merchandise rights to Monroe’s likeness were sold in 2011, almost 50 years after her death, illustrating the enduring value of her brand.
More recently, Heath Ledger died after filming “The Dark Knight,” in 2008. The film, part of the Batman franchise, opened with $158 million for Warner Bros. at the U.S. box office, a record at the time. Ledger won a posthumous Academy Award for his supporting role as the Joker.
A particular challenge for Universal, in addition to the filming being incomplete, will be handling the manner of Walker’s death, given the street-racing theme of the “Fast & Furious” movies.
Walker, 40, and his business partner Roger Rodas died when Rodas’s 2005 Porsche Carrera GT crashed into a light pole and a tree in Valencia, California, bursting into flames, according to the Associated Press. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said speed was a factor.
“Your humble spirit was felt from the start, wherever you blessed your presence you always left a mark,” the actor and rapper Ludacris, whose work was featured in several of the “Fast and Furious” films, said on Twitter.
The franchise has endured personnel changes in the past. Walker missed the third edition, 2006’s “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.” Co-star Diesel skipped the second installment, 2003’s “2 Fast 2 Furious.”
Walker played Brian O’Conner, an undercover police officer who infiltrates a street racing gang and later joins. The appeal of the franchise lies with its fast cars and brash characters living on the edge, said Robert Marich, author of “Marketing to Moviegoers.”
“It’s a brand,” Marich said. “They can ride it.”
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