Why 'Furious 7' is different from other box-office smashes

'Furious 7' has become just the second movie in five years to win the box office four weekends running

It might seem like the world had moved on this weekend, but while you were busy getting caught up in Bruce Jenner or wondering why everyone else was getting caught up in Bruce Jenner, something unusual was happening at the multiplex. “Furious 7,” that film you heard about what seemed like so many weeks ago, was still veritably ripping things up at the box office.

The film won the weekend handily over new opener “The Age of Adaline" and holdovers “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” and “Unfriended.” In doing so, “Furious” entered a rare class: it’s now won the box office crown four straight weeks. How rare? Well, the feat has been achieved only one other time in the previous five years, with a small release called “The Hunger Games” in early 2012. The last movie to pull off the trick before that was “Avatar.” Woman, I am the cavalry.

Modern studio hits break down, broadly, into two categories. There are movies that have a long life, like “Frozen,” rarely conquering the weekend but racking up hugely solid numbers deep into their run. And there are films that explode out of the gate but burn out soon after (see under: most superhero movies). The four-peat club combines both — the movies in it contain both intensity and staying power. “Furious” has now grossed more than all but three of last year’s top films, and could well end up ahead of all of them when the dust settles.

Then, of course, there’s the international box office. At more than $1.3 billion in receipts, "Furious 7" is now the fifth-highest grossing release of all time worldwide. It’s poised to eclipse the highest-grossing “Harry Potter” movie on the list for fourth place; the only films ahead of it will soon be “The Avengers” and a pair of James Cameron films.  “Furious” has also raced to $1 billion faster than any other movie, including one of said Cameron blockbusters (“Avatar” again), per the Guinness Book of World Records.

Of course, international box office these days is boosted by the fast-growing number of theaters in emerging markets like China. Not so for domestic success. In fact, “Furious'” long legs, as the industry dubs movies that tend to hang in there, are an anomaly not only in the larger Hollywood world but for the franchise itself. The previous installment, “Fast 6” (2013) was a massive hit (until a month ago the most lucrative film in the franchise) yet had fallen to fourth place by its fourth weekend. The movie before that, “Fast Five,” was the second-highest grossing. It won the box office only for a single week.

What gives “Furious 7” its ability to defy Hollywood logic, then? Some of it is propitious scheduling — the more fallow time of April has meant “Furious” can mow over less stalwart competition like “The Longest Ride.”

But the previous “Fast” movies had the same period to play with. And besides, all the runway in the world won’t matter if interest has died down. Yet interest in this keeps picking up.

Data beyond opening weekend can be scant (Hollywood’s emphasis on the fast and frontloaded again) but repeat business may be a factor, as people turn out to re-live some of its thrills. So might female interest in Paul Walker and his powerful farewell scene, along with new fans generally. "Furious 7" has grossed at least $80 million more than any other film in the franchise, which translates into 10 million in additional admissions—a sign that people who on six previous instances declined the opportunity to see a “Fast and Furious” movie are coming out to this one.

One of Hollywood’s biggest problems in growing properties these days is sameness — viewers feel like they’ve seen it before, so a title has a hard time expanding its base beyond those who already like it. Yet whether it’s the upped ante in the stunts, the fact that the stunts are more visceral and physical than their effects-driven counterparts or perhaps simply the atypical combination of action and sentiment, people feel they haven’t seen it before, and “Furious 7” has been able to find a way around that pitfall.

When “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” opens Thursday, it will end “Furious’" marathon run, and could well end up finishing ahead of Vin Diesel & Co. on the year-end chart. The Joss Whedon extravaganza is expected to top $200 million in its opening weekend, a figure that would make it a challenger for the biggest domestic grosser of all time--an honor, incidentally, held by the $207 million total of the first "Avengers."

But with “Avengers” kicking off a season in which movies go huge and then go away, it’s worth calling attention to a film that has resisted that pattern. Few modern releases have done what “Furious” has just pulled off — intensely captured our attention, then held it.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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