“Fast & Furious 7” is in the grip of a production delay after the death of Paul Walker. There are several ways things could play out.
In a best-case scenario for the Universal franchise, filmmakers figure out, in editing and writing, how to give Walker’s Brian O’Conner both a meaty part and a graceful exit, and the movie becomes not only a summer hit but a touching tribute to its late actor, a la “Enough Said” and James Gandolfini. They do this quickly, allowing the film to make its July 11 release date. Boosted by the last-role angle, the film grosses more than any of the previous six movies in the series.
That would work out well for all concerned. But there are also far more troublesome scenarios. In one of them, O’Conner ends up only with a small part in the finished film, because the footage shot -- and, more important, not yet shot -- doesn’t allow for him to figure in. Resolving how to make the movie work without him entails plenty of rewriting, delaying and new shooting days. The resultant movie has a hollowed-out feel -- particularly without the key dynamic of O’Conner playing off Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto -- and the film needs to be pushed back to 2015.
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(Another scenario would be to junk everything that has been done and start over, though with Walker’s importance to the franchise and the people working on it, it’s hard to see it breaking this way; they’d want him in the film in some capacity, any way they can.)
If they have a plan, Universal and producers aren’t saying. The delay looks likely to keep going into this week and possibly beyond, suggesting there isn't a quick fix.
If this seems like a lot of thinking for how to handle one movie, there’s good reason for it. Beyond the important sensitivity questions, the economic stakes are extremely high. The sixth “Fast & Furious” is the studio’s biggest live-action grosser this year. (The next-biggest, “Identity Thief,” barely tallied half of “Fast’s” $238-million U.S. haul.) Globally, the franchise is also enormous: The last film's $788 million is also Universal's largest live-action release of the year worldwide, and the franchise's $2.3 billion to date is whopping by any standard. "Fast" is a big part of the reason why Universal has been able to get to No. 3 among all U.S. studios in box office returns this year, garnering more than 14% of the U.S. market.
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To make matters more pressing, Universal doesn’t exactly have a lot of franchises. Attempts to get a new one off the ground this summer with “R.I.P.D.” were D.O.A., as they were with “Battleship” last year. The studio does have both the “Ted” and “Despicable Me” series -- a “Ted” sequel is slated to hit in summer 2015 -- but today’s studios cannot live on comedy and 'toons alone. It’s no accident that Universal had been going for a new “Fast” film the year immediately after an installment, something it had never done before with the franchise.
It’s probably also no accident that even as questions swirled around “Fast” this week, Universal announced a new Jason Bourne movie for summer 2015. We still have big franchises, the studio seemed to be shouting; don’t forget about this one -- though the new film will have its work cut out for it given the middling reception to the last Bourne reboot. (Interestingly, veteran “Fast” helmer Justin Lin will be the man tasked with the Bourne challenge.)
In some ways, all “Fast” business has been something of a bonus for Universal. The franchise was thought to be in trouble after the third film tanked in 2006. But it has come back strong, first with “Fast & Furious” in 2009 and then especially with “Fast Five” back in 2011, when that film cracked the $200-million domestic mark, a first for the franchise, and nearly doubled the international box office of the previous high.
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“Fast” is a franchise that has found a way to reinvent itself time and again, with new genres and, yes, even new actors. But a tragic death means uncommon uncertainty on the screen -- and weighty questions for the company tasked with deciding what to put on it.