Commentary: 'Fast' success drives early summer start

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Fabulous "Fast": Hollywood's summer season got off to a sizzling early April start with Universal Pictures and Relativity Media's $71 million launch of "Fast & Furious."

"Fast's" strength continued into Monday with a huge $5.1 million gross for that non-holiday day. For years distribution schedules revolved around Memorial Day weekend as the summer's official start since it's the season's first holiday weekend. And with the holiday falling on a Monday, there was an extended period in which to do business. Since then, Hollywood's gradually moved up the start of summer to the first weekend in May.

But now Universal's completely redefined the idea of summer moviegoing by using the first weekend in April for "Fast," an action packed franchise driven by the kind of high powered marketing that previously was associated with summer rather than spring openings.

For some insights into how "Fast's" high-octane launch was orchestrated, I was happy to catch up Monday with Universal Pictures' marketing president Eddie Egan. "It stunned us, actually," Egan told me when I asked if they'd anticipated this kind of mega-grossing weekend. "Obviously we had a very good feeling about how a fourth 'Fast & Furious' movie would do, but to say that we ever expected this result -- well, we never expected this result. It's just absolutely incredible."

Cleary, I suggested, it comes as the result of doing everything right. "It's very kind of you to say," he replied. "I think everyone here worked very hard at lining things up, but finally it's the audience that decides and there was an enormous number of (moviegoers) who were eager and ready for this movie."

In particular, Egan applauded the work done by studio executives Nikki Rocco (president, distribution), Frank Chiocchi (executive vp, creative advertising), Suzanne Cole (executive vp, media), Michael Moses (executive vp, publicity), Amanda Scholer (vp, publicity), Greg Sucherman (senior vp, field marketing) and Doug Neil (senior vp, digital marketing).

A key decision was to open the film the first weekend in April. "And that was a tough and lively conversation here," Egan noted. "I have to give all credit for that to Adam Fogelson (president, marketing and distribution), who advocated that. Originally, we had the movie scheduled in June. We saw the movie and obviously we knew the movie was terrific and Adam just posed the question, 'What if we were to open April 3?' There was a lot of head-scratching and a lot of reluctance on the part of a lot of people and Adam persevered and explained his point of view, and explained it sufficiently to both his colleagues here at the studio and the talent on the movie and, lo and behold, $71 million later he was absolutely right to advocate it."

And, as a result, the summer season's gotten under way a month early. "That was the biggest question that people who were iffy about this release date had," Egan recalled. "You could see the opportunity. The date was good. You had spring break happening to some degree before and after and it was a good open week. But the question was, 'Can you open a 'summer movie' in the spring?' And it turns out, obviously, that you can -- as long as you have the movie that people want to see and you present it simply and satisfy their interest."

Directed by Justin Lin, who directed 2006's "The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift," the new film reteams the 2001 original's four lead stars -- Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster.

Universal's opening weekend exit polls, Egan said, showed that "Fast's" audience skewed male (57%) and was ethnically diverse -- Hispanic (46%), Caucasian (28%), African American (16%), Asian (8%) and other (2%). The majority of the audience had previously seen "The Fast and the Furious" (96%), "2 Fast 2 Furious" (94%) and "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" (89%).

Besides having the right picture and the right release date, "Fast's" success also hinged on having the right marketing campaign. In this case, the studio's line "New Model. Original parts" proved to be a big winner. "We've seen since the first movie, which was a lower budget and very much a surprise hit, a continuing interest in the automobile lifestyle as embodied on the screen by these characters," he pointed out. "Now we did very well in the second one (2003's '2 Fast 2 Furious') with Paul Walker's character carrying the first sequel. That opened to $50.5 million. And then it changed course and went overseas for the third one (which) did very well overseas but sort of topped out here (with a cume of $62.5 million).

"We kept hearing all along from people that what really differentiates the 'Fast & Furious' films from other movies in which there are racing cars or car chases are the characters who live in that lifestyle. That was why when it was proposed after the third movie that we go back to that core equity and revisit the characters of Dom and Brian and Letty and Mia we all jumped at it. That was the whole game -- just saying, 'Those people that you loved so much and that you watch endlessly on DVD or on showings on USA and other cable networks are back in the same kind of story and, in fact, a story that answers questions left unanswered at the end of the first movie."

Universal also had to demonstrate through its marketing, he added, "that the movie had the goods. I think people are a little wary of sequels and of companies rightly or wrongly trying to cash in on their intellectual properties. What we decided in the first trailer and in the follow-up trailer was to show a longer than usual sequence. It was the tanker chase and it played out. It's much longer than a sequence would be in a trailer. It took a while to even show you that Vin was the man driving the car. That was just to demonstrate that this movie had incredibly dynamic direction by Justin Lin, who also did the third one, and was worthy of the return of those characters."

The extensive marketing campaign that Egan's department created for "Fast" began with teaser trailers going into theaters in late August and playing into the fall and winter with hits like "Quantum of Solace" and "Yes Man." The film's full trailer started in theaters in mid-January, playing through with hits like "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" and "Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail." Teaser and final one-sheets and standees were among other elements of the in-theaters campaign.

The studio's media campaign positioned "Fast" as a must-see event and included a 45 second Super Bowl spot plus spots in "American Idol," "Lost," "24" and "Family Guy" as well as NBA games and NCAA March Madness. There were buys on various cable networks and a heavy Spanish language campaign targeting Hispanic moviegoers in the U.S. Outdoor buys were made in New York, L.A. and the top 15 markets and there was heavy use of radio close to opening. And there were promotional partnerships with BP Castrol, General Tires, Puma, Remus Innovation and Subaru.

There also was major use of the Internet through Universal's digital marketing team. The film's official website www.fastandfuriousmovie.net/ was launched last Aug. 22 and received over 500,000 unique visitors and over 8 million trailer streams. The full website was launched in February with a downloadable widget, an Ultimate model contest, video transitions and additional functionality and features. Active fanpages and groups were launched on MySpace and Facebook and an extensive media campaign ran on YouTube, MySpace, AOL, Yahoo, ESPN, Facebook, Xbox, Fandango, Movietickets, MTV and other sites.

Among the national media partnerships that Universal developed for "Fast" were ones with the cable networks Adult Swim, BET, FX, MTV, VH1, Speed, Spike TV and USA. On the publicity side of the marketing fence, besides covering all the usual bases with the media there were special screenings and press days in Miami, a premiere at Universal CityWalk and a press junket in L.A. with the film's director and four lead stars.

Reflecting on the film's incredible launch to way more business than anyone was anticipating, Egan explained, "I hear anecdotally that the industry was kind of gob-smacked by how this did and I admit to you that there was more of the audience than we imagined, but it just goes to show that the research methods that we all use can never fully gauge something that is this completely white hot. There's just a limit to how many of those people when an audience is all fired up to see something are going to stop to engage in a research study. And, in fact, some of those research studies may not even be able to effectively track them."

"Fast's" fast-track launch is all the more impressive coming in the midst of the current deep recession when people are cutting back on spending across the board yet moviegoing continues to grow. "Everything's expensive these days because there's less money going around, but (moviegoing) is still a pretty good value for your money because you get to go out," Egan observed. "It is a social event. There's nothing like seeing a movie like 'Fast & Furious' in a packed theater on opening weekend. The theater is just on fire with expectations. Obviously, it's pure escapism. People shouldn't drive at speeds that they do in the movie, but they like to watch it on screen and they like to watch it with other people. I think when it is this kind of social event and a movie that's really linked to a lifestyle, it's just a perfect combination to explode the way this one did this weekend."

That type of shared experience is important, he added, because "it's really part of why moviegoing will always endure even with all the new technologies and delivery systems. I think people really do like going out, especially on a weekend, and being with other people -- whether it's to see an action movie and to hear a collective gasp or a comedy and hear people laughing. That's not something you can experience in your home."

Looking ahead, how does Universal keep "Fast" in the boxoffice fast lane? "Word of mouth is going to do a lot of that," Egan said, citing the film's very favorable exit polls, including an A- CinemaScore rating. "That doesn't happen a lot. I think the trajectory is not completely knowable on this movie. A certain number of people are going to go again and people who didn't go this weekend are going to have heard from everybody about what a great experience it is and what a success it was."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com
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