Attention merchants: You should have started stocking barbecue gear and beach balls in March because summer now officially starts before Easter.
That's because "Furious 7" opened well beyond the wildest predictions, earning an estimated $143.6 million this weekend, not just setting a new April record but becoming the biggest debut in the history of Universal Pictures and the ninth-biggest opening weekend of all-time. In other words, the film has proved you can earn summer-blockbuster-sized numbers before March Madness is even finished.
Sure, people expected "Furious 7" to do well -- it's a popular franchise, and it had no real competition this weekend. But predictions topped out around $110 to $120 million. But $144 million? What series on its seventh installment that doesn't involve teenage British wizards can command that kind of premiere?
Now, of course, Hollywood will be scrambling to replicate the film's surprising success, but the studios won't really be able to, since many of the elements "Furious 7" had going for it were unique. They included:
Momentum. Over 14 years, "The Fast and the Furious" is the rare franchise that's gotten only more popular with each installment (except for one misfire, the third movie, "Tokyo Drift"). Since Paul Walker and Vin Diesel returned to the franchise for the fourth film in 2009, each succeeding sequel has opened about 15 to 20 percent higher than the last. That popularity leads to bigger budgets for each succeeding installment, which means more spectacle and more stars, which in turn leads to an even more enthusiastic audience response.
Timing. Easter is supposed to be a lackluster weekend for moviegoing, since many people have church and family gatherings to attend. Plus, there were college basketball semi-finals this weekend. Still, a lot of kids were out of school on Good Friday, and the movie also did well in sneak screenings on Thursday night. Besides, the conventional wisdom that leads studios to avoid programming major releases in early April left the field wide open for this franchise, which has done well at this time in past years.
Weak competition. While there were no other new wide-release movies this weekend, "Furious 7" might have expected to face some competition for the young-adult male audience from last week's "Get Hard." Instead, the Will Ferrell-Kevin Hart comedy fell hard, dropping 62 percent from its debut and coming in third with an estimated $12.9 million. Second place was last weekend's unexpected family-film smash "Home," down a more modest 47 percent, to an estimated $27.4 million. But then, "Home" wasn't really going after the same audience. There should have been some overlap between "Furious 7" and "The Divergent Series: Insurgent," but that film, now in its third weekend, came in fifth with an estimated $10.0 million; it's dropping fast and proved not much of a threat to "Furious 7." Then there are last month's male-driven action thrillers "Run All Night" and "The Gunman." Neither earned more than $650,000 this weekend.
Word-of-mouth. The movie's A grade at CinemaScore means word-of-mouth is about as strong as possible. Clearly, the movie is delivering everything fans wanted to see.
Strong reviews. Not that this franchise is made to appeal to critics, but they like the film anyway. With a current 82 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the critical consensus is more positive for "Furious 7" than for any of the first six movies. The movie didn't need critics' help, but to the extent that Universal wanted to draw older audiences who read reviews, the thumbs-up didn't hurt.
Four-quadrant appeal. Most action franchises appeal to just one quadrant: young men. But this one appeals to all four. According to studio polling, "Furious 7" ticketbuyers were almost evenly split between men and women (at 51 percent male) and between younger and older (56 percent were over 25). Why do women like the movie? Could be for the masculine eye candy on display, or it could be that Michelle Rodriguez is as much a part of the action as the guys are. Or it could be that women like adrenaline-pumping car chases as much as men do.
Rainbow casting. Much has been written about the multi-racial casting of the series, not just in the make-up of the gang of adventurers, but even in the mixed-race backgrounds of individual performers (Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson). There's someone here for everyone to identify with, and that includes overseas audiences. This is one element of the franchise's success that you'd think other Hollywood blockbusters, with their eye on those lucrative foreign grosses, would be quick to emulate. Surprisingly, they are not.
Big names. In addition to series regulars Walker, Diesel, Johnson, Rodriguez, and others, the series often introduces high-profile action actors as guest stars. After watching him stake out his own place in car-chase history in the "Transporter" movies, who wouldn't want to see how Jason Statham fares in the "Furious" universe? And Kurt Russell, of course, brings a long history of action cred to "Furious 7," from playing Snake Plissken in "Escape from New York" and "Escape from Los Angeles" to playing a psychopathic stunt driver in Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof." Of course, both newcomers help bring in older audiences (has anyone under 30 seen Russell's Snake Plissken movies?).
Tragedy. Sadly, the biggest draw in "Furious 7" is morbid curiosity. Walker's death in 2013 in a real-life car crash seemed all too on-the-nose. He'd shot many of his "Furious 7" scenes, but the movie had to be drastically retooled to write his death into the story. The process took an extra year, building anticipation for the film even more. The analogy many pundits have drawn is with Heath Ledger's unexpected death a few months before the release of "The Dark Knight" in 2008, which only added to expectations for the movie and helped blast it into the box-office stratosphere when it was finally released. That seems to have happened with "Furious 7," which, by all accounts, has been transformed into a poignant and worthy tribute to Walker; as the CinemaScore grade suggests, fans seem to be satisfied with the way the filmmakers bid Walker adieu. But even casual fans and rubberneckers are curious to see how the movie handle's Walker's demise.
Of course, Walker's death also led the studio to hint that the franchise won't be able to continue without him, meaning that "Furious 7" would be the last installment -- which also makes people want to see it in theaters while they can. Though, if you really think Universal will stop making these movies after a $144 million premiere, you probably also believe in the Easter Bunny.