The budget for “Fast X,” the 10th film in Universal’s lucrative “Fast & Furious” action franchise, has ballooned to $340 million, according to individuals with knowledge of the production. That’s 70% more than the reported $200 million budget for 2021’s “F9: The Fast Saga,” and easily the most expensive entry in an action series that has generated $6.6 billion worldwide in ticket sales.
The surging price tag, which factors in tax-incentive offsets, can be blamed on numerous budget-busting elements: increased salaries for series star Vin Diesel and the rest of the franchise’s ensemble cast, general increases in production costs caused by global inflation and charges for pandemic testing requirements mandated by COVID-19 safety protocols.
Combine this with the marketing budget required for a global blockbuster like “F&F,” and theatrical profits for “Fast X” could be significantly lower than previous installments — and perhaps fail to materialize at all. And since the “Jurassic World” trilogy just wrapped and the “Fast” series is due to end after an 11th installment planned for 2024, the studio will need to redouble its efforts to develop new tentpole franchises while leaning on lower-budget genre projects that might have a greater profit potential. (That approach could get a big boost from the planned merger of Jason Blum and James Wan’s horror-focused production companies, which would have a first-look deal with Universal.)
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It’s still possible that “Fast X” could outgross the $726 million global total of “F9” — especially since COVID-19 will not be as much of a factor in keeping audiences from turning up in movie theaters next summer. But with a break-even point that will likely be in the neighborhood of $500-550 million, “Fast X” would have to post a higher total to have the same theatrical profit as “F9.”
The transformation of “Fast & Furious” from a series of street racing films into an explosive, globetrotting stunt show has been one of two cornerstones to Universal’s recent theatrical success. Beginning in 2015, the studio saw the “F&F” franchise peak with the $1.5 billion global hit “Furious 7,” as well as the successful revival of the “Jurassic Park” franchise with “Jurassic World,” a film that grossed $1.6 billion and spawned two more sequels that also hit the $1 billion mark.
Since then, “F&F” and “Jurassic” have provided tentpole consistency on Universal’s slate — this past summer’s “Jurassic World: Dominion” grossed $376 million domestically and $1 billion worldwide — as the studio has built a diverse portfolio of studio and filmmaker partners that can provide plenty of horror, animation and original films with theatrical potential at a lower budget level.
In 2023 and beyond, Universal will have to rely on that diversity for continued profits as the “Jurassic World” trilogy is now finished and “Fast & Furious” has just two more films planned.
If “F&F” has indeed lost its profit potential given exploding production costs, then Universal’s strongest return on investment going forward will come from elsewhere in its IP stable. While Universal reps declined to comment for this story, insiders at the studio have been particularly bullish on the animation studio Illumination, which is releasing next year’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movies.”
After the success of Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” films, Universal is confident that Illumination’s take on the Nintendo mascot can bring out families and gamers in droves. While a global run of over $750 million is unlikely, Illumination has consistently produced hit films on production budgets of under $100 million, so the profit margins theatrically will be stronger both for “Mario” and for 2024’s “Despicable Me 4.”
Add the in-the-works DreamWorks Animation sequels to “Puss in Boots,” “Trolls” and “Kung Fu Panda,” Blumhouse with its consistent microbudget horror formula, and deals with original filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Chloé Zhao, and Universal is lining up plenty of bets on films that can be solid financial winners made for half the cost — even if they’re unlikely to become billion-dollar blockbusters like “Jurassic World.”
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In the best-case scenario, annual theatrical grosses for Universal may trend downward mid-decade after “Fast & Furious” ends. Since “Jurassic World” began, the lowest non-COVID annual domestic total for Universal was $1.3 billion in 2019, a year when the “F&F” spinoff “Hobbs & Shaw” was the top grosser with $174 million domestic and $760 million global. Future annual totals may slip closer to $1 billion if Illumination and/or DreamWorks don’t yield a $200 million-plus domestic grosser and returns from original films fall below their pre-pandemic counterparts.
But barring multiple bombs like the ill-fated 2019 musical “Cats” or the 2018 steampunk blockbuster “Mortal Engines,” Universal could squeeze consistent profit levels from the box office as it reduces its annual production spending on pricey tentpoles. And if an Illumination or DreamWorks family film becomes a surprise success like “The Secret Life of Pets,” which topped $350 million domestically and $850 million globally in 2016, Universal may avoid a downturn.
Of course, Universal may also decide that three “Jurassic World” films — or 11 “F&F” movies — just aren’t enough. This year’s “Jurassic World: Dominion” proved to be critic-proof, hitting $1 billion worldwide despite being widespread critical pans. And it’s hard to imagine any studio walking away from a franchise when it’s still showing that much moneymaking potential.
Indeed, while insiders say that serious talks on greenlighting another “Jurassic” film haven’t started yet, series producer Frank Marshall told Collider back in 2020 that he foresaw the franchise continuing with new human protagonists facing off against dinosaurs on the big screen. Life finds a way, and so do tentpole franchises.
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