With no other big movie openings this weekend, "Furious 7" could rev up record ticket sales at the box office.
The latest film in Universal Pictures' vastly popular 14-year-old franchise is expected to set April records with an opening of at least $115 million at the domestic box office, according to people who have seen pre-release audience surveys.
That would mark the largest opening ever for the series, which has so far collected more than $2 billion globally.
When the first installment, "The Fast and the Furious," was released in 2001, many did not expect the action film to become such a long-lasting series. But the franchise keeps getting bigger, thanks to Universal's efforts to both build on the multicultural, global fan base and amp up the spectacle and stunts in each film.
"Franchise growth has become an absolute centerpiece of any studio slate," Donna Langley, Universal Pictures' chairman, told The Times in a phone interview earlier this week. "A little bit of timing and a lot of strategy has worked in our favor with the ['Fast & Furious'] franchise."
But the latest film, which cost $190 million to make, hit some unexpected bumps in the road. The release date was shifted from summer 2014 after the franchise's beloved star Paul Walker died in a car crash midway through production.
After grieving, Universal and the film's cast and crew decided to finish "Furious 7" "for Paul," Langley said. Caleb Walker and Cody Walker, Paul's brothers, were brought in as stand-ins. Computer effects were also used for facial replacement to complete Walker's remaining scenes.
Directed by franchise newcomer James Wan, the latest film takes the ensemble (which includes Walker, Vin Diesel, Chris “
Dominic Toretto (played by Diesel) and the crew go after Deckard Shaw (Statham) for targeting and killing crew members as revenge for the death of his brother, Owen Shaw.
Like the cast, the franchise's fervent fan base is very diverse. Moviegoers of all ages and races are expected to turn up in theaters in masses to support the installment and pay tribute to the late Walker.
Both Fandango and Movietickets.com, online movie ticket companies, reported high volume of ticket sales for the film ahead of opening weekend. According to a survey conducted by Fandango, 96% of ticket buyers on the website identify as fans of the franchise. An estimated 95% of those surveyed said they have been looking forward to the film's over-the-top stunts.
In March, the public got its first glimpse of the film at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin. During the packed screening, fans were emotional, with many cheering, "We love you, Paul Walker" and "Rest in peace, Paul Walker."
The film's Los Angeles premiere on Wednesday at TLC Chinese Theatre also drew in thousands of fans, who lined Hollywood Boulevard in hopes of seeing their franchise favorites.
"My sister's been a racer, my brother's been a racer, my dad races motorcycles – everything in the film is something we like," said Brenda Oliveros, a 25-year-old Bakersfield resident, as she stood across the street from the red carpet. "Honestly, everybody, every single race, feels like part of the movie and the cast's family."
Oliveros, who was an extra on "Furious 7" during the first race scene, clutched four photos of herself and the stars in hopes of getting them signed.
"I'm glad they finished the film," she said. "It's something I bet Paul Walker would be proud of."
Meanwhile, last weekend's holdovers "Home" and "Get Hard" will likely remain in the top five.
Indie horror film "It Follows" will expand to 1,655 theaters on Friday. The movie, from Weinstein Co.'s Radius-TWC label and Dimension Films, has benefited from positive word-of-mouth and a high Rotten Tomatoes "positive" rating of 95%. It broke into the top five last weekend.