Universal's "Fast & Furious" franchise has been a hit for more than a decade, but Latino moviegoers are steering it into the blockbuster fast lane.
The latest entry, "Fast & Furious 6," roared to $120 million over the past four days and has been the driving force behind the biggest Memorial Day weekend ever at the domestic box office. Latinos made up 32 percent of its audience, as they did for the previous entry in Universal's muscle car franchise "Fast Five," and this film is now on track to pass that one as the highest-grossing in the series.
"It's not just Hispanics, it's the diversity in general that helped this movie become so popular," Universal's distribution chief Nikki Rocco told TheWrap Monday, and the numbers bear that out. White moviegoers made up 29 percent of the audience, while African-Americans were 22 percent and Asians were 13 percent.
Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and their pals easily outdistanced the weekend's No. 2 film, "The Hangover Part III." The finale in the raunchy R-rated comedy franchise will finish the four days with around $51 million, and has run up $63 million for Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures since opening Thursday. Last week's No. 1 film, Paramount's and Skydance Production's "Star Trek Into Darkness," was third with nearly $47 million for the long weekend. That topped the weekend's other wide opener, Fox's animated "Epic," which brought in $41 million.
The connection of "Fast & Furious 6" with Latino audiences is no accident. With stars like Michelle Rodriguez, and a healthy amount of Spanish dialog, Universal went out of its way to court them.
In its marketing, the studio made a point of emphasizing elements that set it apart from summer blockbusters headlined by white males, namely a cast that included Asian, African-American and Latino actors like Rodriguez, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, and Sung Kang.
"We're the Benetton of casting," Jeffrey Kirschenbaum, Universal Pictures co-president of production, told TheWrap prior to the film's opening. The result is a cast that looks like many of today's moviegoers -- social media savvy, ethnic and frequently bilingual.
Broadening the base via the multicultural casting is a strategy that translates abroad as well. The effects really began began to kick in with "Fast Five," which was set in Rio and drew more than $632 million worldwide, nearly $270 million more than what the next highest grossing film in the franchise had netted. Internationally the film continued to pick up steam, more than doubling the previous high-water mark for foreign grosses on a "Fast" film.
"Fast & Furious 6" could be even bigger overseas. It opened No. 1 in 59 foreign markets and took in roughly $160 million abroad this weekend, giving it a global total of $300 million, the studio's best-ever worldwide opening. At $13 million, Mexico was the second-highest grossing market, behind only Russia with $17.8 million.
The increasing clout of Latino movie audiences -- who go to movies more than any other ethnic group -- is a growing reality for Hollywood. Latinos represent just 17 percent of the U.S. population, yet accounted for 26 percent of domestic ticket sales in 2012, according a study by the Motion Picture Association of America.
Universal has scored by targeting Latino audiences before. Director Guillermo del Toro's horror film "Mama" surprised with $32 million over the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. earlier this year and Latino moviegoers made up 47 percent of the audience.
The overall box office surpassed $315 million, racing past the previous-best $276 million total of the 2011 Memorial Day weekend, when "The Hangover Part II" led the way with $85 million. That was despite some bad weather on the East Coast, which kept Sunday's numbers from hitting earlier estimates.
The showdown between Todd Phillips' comedy and "Fast & Furious 6" wasn't close. The holiday haul for "Hangover III" is the second-best ever for an R-rated comedy, but is way down from the $135 million "Hangover Part II" earned during a comparable stretch. It averaged $17,823 in 3,555 theaters, compared to the $32,810 average from 3,658 theaters of "Fast & Furious 6."
The film's mainly negative reviews (21 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and soft "B" CinemaScore appeared to have taken a toll, particularly on the heels of the previous movie, which was also beaten up by the critics. The audience for "Hangover III" was 52 percent male, and 55 percent over 25 years of age.
Holdovers contributed to the record holiday, led by "Star Trek Into Darkness." Its $47 million four-day haul was off just 40 percent from last week's opening and raised its domestic total to $155 million.
"Epic," from Fox's in-house animation unit Blue Sky Studios, is off to a strong start, especially considering it will have the family field largely to itself over the next few weeks. The audience, which gave the movie an "A" CinemaScore, broke down 57 percent women and 55 percent under 25 years of age.
Disney's blockbuster "Iron Man 3" followed with a $24.3 million take over the four days. That lifts the domestic total for Disney's Marvel superhero sequel past $372 million, and its worldwide haul to more than $1.14 billion. That moves it into No. 5 on the list of all-time highest-grossing movies worldwide, ahead of "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."
"The Great Gatsby" was sixth. The glitzy adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel took in $17 million over the long weekend. Last week it became the first of director Baz Luhrmann's movies to hit the $100 million mark at the box office, and its total now stands at $117 million for Warner Bros. after three weeks.