'Furious 7' races away with the box office by looking like America

'Furious 7,' the latest installment of the long-running action movie franchise, shattered box office records in the US and abroad over Easter weekend. A big part of 'Furious 7’'s success? Having a cast that reflects the diversity of its audience. 

Scott Garfield/Universal Pictures/AP/File
From left, Tyrese Gibson as Roman, Michelle Rodriguez as Letty, Paul Walker as Brian, and Chris Ludacris as Tej, in a scene from 'Furious 7.'

For over a decade and a half, the draw of the “Fast and the Furious” movies have been the surest bet at the box office. The latest was no exception. 

“Furious 7,” the latest installment in the series about a group of outlaw drag racers and their physics-defying escapades, had the franchise’s biggest opening weekend to date,  selling $143.6 million in tickets in the US and $384 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. Much like Dominic Toretto and his multimillion-dollar sports car did to those Abu Dhabi skyscraper windows, the film shattered the record for a US opening weekend in April (previous record holder “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” pulled in a paltry $95 million last year).  For the global box office, “Furious 7,” had the fourth-best opening weekend of all time, behind two “Harry Potter” films and “The Avengers.”

The numbers are dazzling, but for several reasons the massive success of “Furious 7,” is hardly a surprise.  The “Fast and Furious” movies make up the most successful series in the history of parent studio, Universal, and its momentum has been building steadily over the course of its 14-year-run. Starting with the fourth film, “Fast & Furious,” in 2009, each film has out-performed the last financially, thanks to consistently delivering on the promise of endless eye candy for car buffs and well-crafted, increasingly fantastical action sequences adrenaline junkies (never has jumping from one speeding car to another been such a matter of routine).  Also, the latest film likely benefitted from fans wanting to see the final performance of series mainstay Paul Walker, who passed away during production in 2013.

Just as important to the series’ success, however, has been its ability to draw an audience as diverse as its large, multiracial cast, which, alongside Diesel and Walker, includes Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, rapper Ludacris, and marital arts star Tony Jaa among its top-billed performers. The first few films were mainly starring vehicles for Mr.Walker, but “the longer the series went on, the more racially and ethnically panoramic it became,” film critic Wesley Morris wrote in Grantland on Friday. “By 2011’s 'Fast Five,' without any self-congratulation and without demoting Walker, the point of view had expanded.”

Hispanics made up the biggest share of the “Furious 7” audience in the US over the weekend, at 37 percent, followed by Caucasians (25 percent), African Americans (24 percent), and Asians (10 percent). All told, 75 percent of the film’s weekend audience was non-white.

"Someone that I admire quite a lot recently said this is a franchise that really looks like America, and there are characters that everyone can relate to,” Universal president of domestic distribution told “The Hollywood Reporter. “I think that's a big plus.”

It’s also smart financially. Hispanics, in particular, go to the movies more frequently than any other demographic– they buy 25 percent of the movie tickets sold in the US, despite being just 16 percent of the US population at large, according to a 2012 report from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).  They also attend movies 5.3 times a year on average, far more than the 3.5 average among whites and 3.7 average among African Americans.

There is no reflection of that buying power in casting for mainstream motion pictures, however. Less than five percent of roles in Hollywood’s biggest films are for Hispanics, according to an analysis of the top 100 grossing films from 2013 conducted by the University of Southern California's Annenberg school. African Americans fared slightly better, appearing in about 14 percent of films. But a full 17 percent of the films studied didn’t have a single speaking role for a black actor.  Seventy-four percent of movies roles in the study were filled by white actors (non-Hispanic whites make up about 63 percent of the US population at large).

Such a vacuum in the face of an obvious market for more diverse faces on our film and TV screens, however, has cleared the way for a few projects  to find runaway success among underserved audience.  “Empire,” a music industry TV drama with an almost entirely black cast, was a juggernaut for Fox this winter,  increasing its viewership every week and garnering 16.7 million viewers for its season finale in January. “Fresh Off the Boat,” a sitcom about a Chinese-American family, has been a hit for ABC in its first season. ABC also plays host on Thursday nights to a block of three hugely popular shows from creator Shonda Rhimes, the first time a black female show-runner has taken control of an entire evening block of network television.

It remains to be seen if such successes will prompt more movie and television executives to green-light more projects in which a larger swath of Americans can recognize themselves. But the gaudy success of “Furious 7” at least offers up a compelling argument to do so.

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