'Fast & Furious': New model, original parts, smash hit
When I was a clueless cub reporter, I did a story on Sam Arkoff, the B-movie impresario behind the fabled American International Pictures, the low-budget assembly line (fondly known as AIP) that churned out hundreds of quickie teen exploitation beach party and horror films. By the time I met Arkoff, he was making a comeback, launching Arkoff International Pictures, which, as he never tired of saying, allowed him to use his favorite old initials on the stationery. In his office, Arkoff had a variety of movie posters propped up against the wall, adorned with catchy titles and ad slogans.
Embarrassed that I didn't recognize any of the titles, I said, "Geez, I'm sorry I missed these films. They look like they're a lot of fun." Smoking a cigar as long as a Cadillac, Arkoff laughed me off. "Don't apologize," he boomed. "We haven't even shot them yet. Never make a movie until you know if you can sell it first."
In Hollywood, the more things change, the more things remain the same. Universal's "Fast & Furious," which opened to a spectacular, mid-summer-like $72.5 million over the weekend, was put together a lot like an old AIP picture. Its producer, Neal Moritz, who has overseen the entire "The Fast and the Furious" series, imagined a poster (and, this being 2009, a 30-second TV spot) alerting fans of the franchise that the new film had all of its original stars back--or, as the film's slogan went: "New model, original parts."
Moritz didn't learn the age-old Arkoff marketing methodology in a film book. His father, Milt Moritz, spent several decades as AIP's head of marketing (known back in the day as advertising and publicity), helping dream up clever ways of promoting films without relying on big budgets or A-list talent. In fact, when Neal was first developing an action picture about street racers, he went with his dad to see a documentary about AIP, where he was reminded that the company's first release was a Roger Corman-directed film called "The Fast and the Furious." The next day he called Universal, the studio acquired the title and the rest is history, especially when it comes to the new film, which broke all sorts of box-office records over the weekend.
"People just wanted to see the cast all back together," Moritz told me this morning, calling from Hawaii, where he was vacationing with his family and fielding congratulatory e-mails and phone calls. "It's been crazy all weekend. I got 300 e-mails on Saturday alone. But this is why when I make movies, I totally focus on the concept. I guess I did get my training growing up around AIP, because if I can't see the poster and if I don't know what my opening weekend TV spots are, I'm not going to make the movie, because you need a strong, easily digestible concept to bring people into the theaters."
There's a reason why Moritz has such close relations with Universal, enjoys a lucrative production deal at Sony and has a bundle of projects set up at virtually every other major studio in town. Although he's not as well known outside the industry as Jerry Bruckheimer or Brian Grazer, he is today's consummate commercial film producer, far more concerned with what plays at the multiplex than what might earn an Oscar nomination. But what makes Moritz especially influential is that he's making the kind of movies studios yearn to have crowding their pipelines today--films that don't depend on big-salaried movie stars for success.
Why is the "concept" the new star in the movie firmament? Keep reading:
It's no secret that Hollywood is eager to get out of the movie star business, at least in the sense of having to pay stars untold millions--and more important, a hefty piece of the gross--in return for their ability to open a picture. In the past year or so, virtually every studio has experimented with new payment schemes, most of them geared toward having the back-end payments for stars kick in only after the studio has recouped its original investment and marketing costs.
For Moritz, this is old hat. With rare exception, his entire formula for making films--dating back to his first hit series, the "I Know What You Did Last Summer" teen horror pictures--has been about selling a strong concept without any expensive star power. Although he's expanded the formula far beyond horror films, his most successful releases, from "Cruel Intentions" to "SWAT" to "XXX" to last year's thriller "Vantage Point," were all films in a commercial genre--notably action thriller or teen scarefest--that lent themselves to a simple tagline, poster image or grabby 30-second TV spot.
He's not dismissive of stars, having made films with both Will Smith ("I Am Legend") and Adam Sandler ("Click"). But he isn't developing projects that need a star to make sense to make. "If I didn't have Will Smith, who works in almost anything, or Adam Sandler in a strong comedy--you know, that top level of A-list star--then I'd rather have a great concept," explains Moritz. "Because when you have a great concept, it becomes the star. It's what you're selling." It wouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the concept for Moritz's next film, a new Seth Rogen-starring version of "The Green Hornet," since the presence of Rogen in a TV-show remake practically screams "comedy action thriller."
Moritz points to the horror film genre, which though it gets little respect from critics or even many studio chiefs, is the most reliable commercial genre in the business. "If you put together a list of the top-grossing horror films of this year, or any year, they all have one thing in common--none of them have any stars in them. The common denominator for a big horror hit is a great concept."
Moritz has adapted the strategy to his hits, which tend to rely on ensemble casts without A-list stars and their hefty piece-of-the-gross deals. The cast of "Fast & Furious" got their regular salary quotes, but when it came to back-end payments, costars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker had to be willing to bet on themselves. The actors see a piece of the gross (actually, a pretty nice piece of the gross) only after Universal makes back its money. (Ditto for Moritz himself.)
Moritz believes that's a fair deal for everybody. For a lot of highly paid actors, this new austerity plan has caused a ruckus, since for them (and their various handlers), it feels like a major rollback, forcing stars to give up a key salary perk it often took years to earn. But in today's culture, where auto workers, journalists and, God forbid, even a few high-flying financial wizards are being asked to make salary or bonus concessions, it feels like an idea whose time has come.
With DVD sales plummeting, movie studios are putting the squeeze on talent, looking for ways to market hits without the expensive dazzle of star power. It's why Universal is looking for projects that look a lot more like "F&F" and a lot less like "Duplicity," a hard-to-sell thriller that didn't get any box-office bounce from the presence of Julia Roberts, or "State of Play," the upcoming newspaper thriller that may not get much of a boost from having Russell Crowe in its TV spots.
For Moritz, it's still all about the concept, just as it was for Sam Arkoff 40 or 50 years ago. Whenever I see Moritz, he's brimming with new ideas for movies. He rarely boasts about having a big star attached to the project. As with "Fast & Furious," it's the concept that comes first.
"Fast & Furious" photo by Jaimie Trueblood / Universal Pictures