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Box Office Booms as Consumers Go for Speed

Consumers keep packing movie theaters: they're not looking for nuanced narrative or complex characters. They're looking for high-octane entertainment, and they found it in Universal's "Fast & Furious," which broke all sorts of records this weekend.
(Universal is part of General Electric's NBC Universal, which is also the parent company of CNBC).

Despite concerns that the recession will eventually take its toll on consumer spending at the cineplex, the numbers are holding up remarkably well. The box office was about 75 percent higher than the same weekend last year. Meanwhile the year-to-date box office gross is up 12.6 percent over last year.

The fourth in the franchise brought in more than any previous Fast & Furious films, bringing in more than $72 million at the U.S. box office for the biggest April movie opening ever, and the biggest opening weekend for any more this year. Believe it or not, it's the biggest three-day opening weekend in Universal's history. And then there are all the unusual records: it's the biggest opening for a car-themed movie, beating Cars' $60 million opening weekend. It's also the biggest for a pure action movie (as opposed to a superhero or fantastical action movie), beating The Bourne Ultimatum which brought in $69.3 million.

Why did the movie do so well? Conventional wisdom says that people go to more movies during recessions. But Universal also made some smart moves to generate higher-than-expected numbers. Perhaps most important, Universal shifted the film earlier than its original June release date. This summer popcorn-style movie had less competition in the usually-quiet spring. The marketing campaign was simple and compelling. And let's not underestimate the power of a franchise. The studio's investment of tens of millions of dollars to market the previous three films all paid off when number four came around.

Studios are taking note. This weekend's performance proves movies that feature huge chase scenes and big explosions shouldn't be limited to the summer. And sequels are safe. Why invest in a risky, artsy film if you know that rehashing old concepts will thrill audiences and yield huge profits?

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