‘Fast & Furious 6′ tops box office: Is diversity the secret to its success?

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Be it holiday amusement, Hollywood’s most dynamic action heroes, or a bout of rain on the East Coast, Fast & Furious 6 debuted in theaters as loud and vociferous as ever, demonstrating how a uniquely multiracial cast can attract major box office bling.

The sixth edition of the film franchise grossed over $120 million across the four-day weekend, reports NBC News, the fourth-highest Memorial Day opening in history, second-biggest opening this year behind Iron Man 3, and a substantial gain over the previous two Fast releases.

Unlike other films with sequels and prequels, this franchise tends to be getting progressively better with time while subsequently diversifying its cast, and broadening appeal to a larger range of people.

“The audience is America,” Jen Rudin, a film and theatrical casting director in New York, tells theGrio. “This is the world we live in….If you asked the theatergoer who saw it, they may not have noticed the diversity, but they might appreciate it. Obviously to those of us who work in this industry, we definitely notice.”

Rudin served as the Director of Casting and Talent Development for Disney Theatrical Productions, as well as the head of casting for Walt Disney Animation Studios, where she cast the studio’s first African-American princess in 2009’s The Princess and The Frog.

From her perspective, lack of diversity in films has less to do with casting directors and more the producers and studios behind such productions. Thus, the success of Fast & Furious 6 and its well-rounded lineup of players could serve as an indication to the powers that be, that audiences will support similar features.

“In terms of a commercial movie, I think Hollywood studios should take note,” she remarks. “Casting directors, we always want to do diversity casting. We’re always asking studios and producers to consider other options. Do all of the Indian men have to be doctors? Do all of the nurses have to be older women? We’re always trying to do diversity casting, and so when we can get our producers to think outside of the box, that helps actors, that helps casting directors.”

‘Fast & Furious 6’ benefits from change, variety and ingenuity

Breaking convention for mainstream big-budget pictures, minorities lead the majority in Fast & Furious 6, crediting Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Ludacris, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, and Sung Kang as stars of the ensemble.

In this latest installment, director Justin Lin made what some have called an unusual or “bold” move for a series by taking the storyline in a new direction, converting the underground street-racing series into a heist film.

In an interview with Slashfilm.com, Lin also explained how he aimed to develop relationships in more depth, and give the female characters greater pull.

Combine that with a built-in audience and mega-wattage star power, and the director’s moves appear to be paying off substantially.

“The cast has a strong influence on the numbers, but there’s a broader recipe that attributes to the success of the movie,” points out Matthew Wulf, owner and casting director of Wulf Casting studio. “The franchise has an incredibly loyal fan base, or there wouldn’t be six films and more on the way. The script/story, being able to up itself from the last, and the release date all play a large part in the numbers, and maybe most importantly [sic] is the marketing that pushes the movie. Universal puts millions into making sure an audience will show up for these movies, and they’ve definitely gotten their money’s worth. As far as the cast goes, diversity in the talent and heroes, both in ethnicity and in gender, will lead to a wider appeal, which will lead to a wider audience and will greatly contribute to $120,019,000 opening weekends.”

‘Fast’ franchise hits billionaire-status

Since the franchise launched in 2001, Fast & Furious has raked in over $817 million from its six films combined, and that’s just the U.S. box office. Worldwide, it has accrued nearly $2 billion.

While the cast has been diverse since its inception, each new installment brings more actors of all backgrounds to the mix, and concurrently, more money. Remarkably, Fast & Furious 6 has grossed almost as much in its opening weekend as the first two films did in their total domestic earnings, and more than three times as much as the third film’s total domestic gross.

The addition of Johnson to the cast in Fast Five also had significant impact.

“There’s somebody for everybody,” Rudin observes. “Michelle Rodriguez is hot and beautiful, and so is Jordana Brewster so that’s going to get the men. And then for the women, they’re going to get to look at Vin Diesel and The Rock…They did a really good job of populating the cast with diversity along with great looking, blockbuster stars.”

Accordingly, audiences reacted. The Los Angeles Times reports that Fast & Furious 6 appealed to males and females almost equally over the weekend. Furthermore, 57 percent of moviegoers were older than 25, and 32 percent were Latino.

The studio agrees.

“The movie did very well in urban, diverse areas, and the entire South was also very strong,” Nikki Rocco, Universal’s president of domestic distribution, told the outlet. “What has been most thrilling for me, though, is that as these films go on women are endorsing them. We spent a lot of time trying to make this more than a car-heist franchise, and it’s paid off.”

Adds Wulf, “The franchise has successfully diversified itself over six movies, not just in culture but with star power (Tyrese Gibson, then Sung Kang, and now Dwayne Johnson is making his second appearance and including a huge fan base of his own to the franchise), and it’s no longer a male 18-30 audience demographic. Their multi-ethnic casting and strong female characters like Michelle Rodriguez have made it a much wider appeal.”

Will this be a new trend in Hollywood?

Despite what may seem an advancement in terms of casting, Fast & Furious 6 has a lot going for it that might not be applicable to other movies. The generally positive reviews of the film and ideal timing for opening weekend made early projections positive, plus it holds up well in foreign markets.

Whether or not it will become a module then for studios to gauge bankability of ethnic splendor is debatable.

“It’s very circumstantial,” Wulf admits. “For certain projects, film specifically, studios, as well as directors and producers, are more likely to mix up the ethnicity of a cast, given the option of a name talent that can be brought on. Dwayne Johnson is a great example of a bankable multi-ethnic lead, and his work has spread across pretty much every genre, including kids’ films…Studios and filmmakers would be more likely to cast an actor of his talent and demographic as a lead as a result. Rarely, if ever, is there instance where an actor would only be cast in a role based on the race.”

Similarly, Rudin notes that change often come from the inside.

“Honestly in terms of diversity casting, casting directors are always advocates,” she believes. “It’s really hitting producers and studios to see that America is a world of diversity.”

Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @courtgarcia