Fast Five Carjacks the Box Office with a Furious $83.6 Million

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Jaimie Trueblood / Universal

Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in Fast Five

What did it take to wake up the Rip Van Winkle box office, asleep for the past 20 or more weeks? Just some fast cars, faster women, a bank vault dragged through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, more wasting of fuel than in the BP oil spill and two bald giants — Vin Diesel and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson — kicking the crap out of each other. Fast Five, fifth in the Fast and the Furious series of car-crazy action thrillers, blasted into the stratosphere this weekend with $83.6 million at North American theaters, according to early studio estimates. "Summer starts Apr. 29," read the ads from Universal Pictures, underlining that the blockbuster movie season was starting a week early this year. Hollywood dearly hopes Fast Five's muscular opening means that the industry's winter of discontent, with the box office down by nearly 20%, is vanishing in Diesel's rear-view mirror.

[MONDAY UPDATE: According to final box-office totals released today, Fast Five actually earned $86.2 million, or 3% above the Sunday estimate. The real weekend figures for Rio and Water for Elephants also exceeded yesterday's guesses, whereas Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family and Prom finished lower.]

Fast Five creamed the competition, siphoning off more than half of the money spent on movie tickets this weekend. It earned nearly six times the take of the No. 2 film, Rio (making this the third consecutive week that the winning movie was set in the Brazilian resort town); and it left two kid-targeted comedies, Prom and Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil, choking in their own pixie dust. Prom, which Disney hoped would jump-start a High School Musical-type franchise, earned only $5 million; and the 3-D cartoon Hoodwinked, yet another gloss on the Red Riding Hood fable, settled for $4.1 million. Over in the micro-world of indie films, the doc Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog's visit to the site of the oldest known works of art, opened to a sterling $127,000 in five theaters. Its $25,400 per-screen average managed to beat Fast Five's $22,950 — though, we grant, the car movie was playing in 3,639 more venues than the cave movie. It was gargantuan apples vs. miniature oranges.

Per-screen is the only race Fast Five lost. It opened to more than twice the gross of any other film this year; no previous picture had premiered to as much as $40 million. Indeed, Fast Five's Friday revenue — $34.5 million — was larger than the full weekend grosses of all but four 2011 movies (Rango, Battle Los Angeles, Hop and Rio). Targeting the young males who've been conspicuously AWOL in the recent movie recession, another Universal ad promised, "If you've been waiting for a reason to go to the movies, we've got five." The strategy worked: 56% of the audience was male, 52% under 25. Fast Five pulled a CinemaScore grade of A from exiting moviegoers, including an A-plus from those under 25. The critics liked it too, with the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate-review site giving the film a 79% rating.

In the U.S. and Canada, Fast Five enjoyed the biggest opening weekend for the series, in both current and real dollars. (The others, with the year of release, the first-weekend gross at the time and the numbers adjusted for inflation: The Fast and the Furious, 2001, $40 million / $56.8 million; 2 Fast 2 Furious, 2003, $50.5 million / $67 million; The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, 2006, $24 million / $29.3 million; and Fast & Furious, 2009, $71 million / $75.8 million.) Disdaining 3-D as a crutch for wimpy films, Fast Five instead broke into 243 IMAX auditoriums, earning $8.3 million there. The figures were also robust in a limited number of foreign countries: $45.3 million this weekend, for a 10-day total of $81.4 million.

The secret to this success: rebranding. The audience for movies glorifying car thieves is limited; the audience for a large-scale heist movie, enormous. With the George Clooney Ocean's franchise dormant since 2007, and no James Bond movie since 2008, the Fast/Furious brain trust determined that moviegoers were avid for a caper-thriller, set in an international fun spot — another reliable formula for extending a movie series. Danny Ocean's gang fleeced Europe in Twelve; the ladies of Sex and the City looked for love in Abu Dhabi; Indiana Jones found thugs in India; the Hangover guys are headed to Thailand; the Simpsons went to Japan, Australia and (in the 2007 feature-film version) Alaska. Fast Five took the Ocean's concept, adjusted its class level from upper to working, brought back a dozen actors from earlier episodes, added an appropriate brand-name star (The Rock) and lavished a reported $170-million on the production. The gamble paid off: Fast Five carjacked the box office and put it in Universal's vault.

One more record: Fast Five, topping its own fourth installment, landed the best April opening ever. But that trophy is mostly due to a fluke of the calendar. Though it's true that the movies' "summer" usually begins in early May, there's really no difference in holiday Mondays or school vacations between the first weekend of May and the last weekend of April. (And in case you haven't noticed, today is May 1.) By that measure, Fast Five's opening was just O.K. Two years ago, X-Men Origins: Wolverine opened May 1 and earned $85.1 million in its first three days; in 2008, Iron Man had a May 2 debut and grossed $98.6 million that weekend. Last year's early-May biggie, Iron Man 2, opened to $128.1 million. Fast Five just took advantage of a nice spring weekend to start its engine early.

Next weekend, we'll see if Marvel's mystico-comix action film Thor can beat Fast Five's $80-plus million opening — or if it will lose its way in a cloud of Vin Diesel fumes.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Fast Five, $83.6 million, first weekend
2. Rio, $14.4 million; $103.6 million, third week
3. Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family, $10.05 million; $41.1 million, second week
4. Water for Elephants, $9.1 million; $32.3 million, second week
5. Prom, $5 million, first weekend
6. Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil, $4.1 million, first weekend
7. Soul Surfer, $3.3 million; $33.8 million, fourth week
8. Insidious, $2.7 million; $48.3 million, fifth week
9. Hop, $2.58 million; $105.3 million, fifth week
10. Source Code, $2.53 million; $48.9 million, fifth week