By Brooks Barnes
LOS ANGELES — In February 2020, Universal Pictures used the Super Bowl to light a marketing match under “F9,” the latest installment in the “Fast and Furious” franchise. With any luck, the studio hoped, the movie would roar into theaters a few months later and take in more than $1 billion worldwide, just as a predecessor, “The Fate of the Furious,” did in 2017.
But the pandemic had other plans. Some rival studios hemmed and hawed over their release schedule, but Universal shocked Hollywood in early March 2020 by delaying “F9” for an entire year. “It was a very unpopular decision,” Donna Langley, chairwoman of the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, said recently in a phone interview. “A lot of people really did not agree with me.”
It was a $350 million-plus decision, between production and marketing costs, and Ms. Langley, like everyone at that stage of the pandemic, was operating in the dark. “It really was a gut call,” she said.
More and more, it looks like the right one: Over the weekend, “F9” arrived in theaters in eight international markets, including China and South Korea, and sold an estimated $162 million in tickets — a blockbuster result that signaled a summer rebound for Hollywood, which was largely reduced to a supplier to streaming services during the pandemic. “F9” collected $135 million in China alone, 33 percent higher than the initial total for “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” in 2019. The most-recent film to take in more than $100 million over its first three days in China was Disney-Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” in 2019.
“F9,” directed by Justin Lin, will arrive in North American cinemas on June 25, the longest delay ever between an overseas Hollywood debut and a domestic one. The reason: Releasing “F9” in China over the weekend allowed Universal to get ahead of the country’s usual summertime blackout on imported movies, which will begin around July 1, the 100th anniversary of the founding of China’s Communist Party. Movie theaters in China are being ordered to screen patriotic films with titles like “The Sacrifice” and “The Red Sun” at that time.
As Hollywood has contemplated how best to rev up moviegoing now that theaters are beginning to operate with some normalcy again, there has been a lot of talk about “the right movie at the right time.” It was not Christopher Nolan’s cerebral “Tenant,” which was released in September by Warner Bros. An old-fashioned monster mash-up, “Godzilla vs. Kong,” drew big crowds last month, but results were depressed because it was simultaneously available on HBO Max.
Could “F9” be the one? It will receive an exclusive run in theaters and features action sequences designed specifically for big screens. One of the film’s cars has an actual rocket engine attached to its roof.
“It feels like a big, beginning-of-summer, school’s-out celebration,” Ms. Langley said of the sequel. It finds Vin Diesel’s marble-mouthed Dom Toretto facing his younger brother Jakob (John Cena), an assassin working with the villainous Cipher (Charlize Theron). Michelle Rodriguez returns as the brooding Letty. Tyrese Gibson, Helen Mirren and Ludacris also star.
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