Everyone Loves A Family

It came to my attention recently that The Fast And The Furious franchise has been gracing our screens now for fourteen years. Fourteen years!  Five movies to date, with a sixth currently shooting and due next year. How many non-horror franchises have that kind of longevity?

If you’re wondering why we should be bothered about a little niche movie about car racing, here are some facts from Box Office Mojo. In 2011, the last installment in the franchise, Fast Five, was the sixth highest grossing movie in the US, and the seventh highest grossing movie in total worldwide box office.

Yes, a moderate budget movie with no big stars took more money in the US than Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and more money world-wide than Captain America, or X-Men: First Class, or Thor, or Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows.

Even I was surprised by that. My love for this particular franchise is a bit of a running joke round here, but actually, I think there are some serious screenwriting lessons to be learned from these movies. So let’s speculate on why The Fast And The Furious is such a successful, and enduring, franchise…

Transferable concepts. Worldwide audiences are increasingly important to Hollywood movies, and two-thirds of Fast Five’s total take was earned outside the US. Whether dubbed or subtitled, US movies with simple, universally applicable concepts and concerns are ones that are going to do best overseas – and what’s more universal than cocky criminals, hot girls, fast cars and fist fights?  Compare that to the complex alternate WW2 of Captain America, or the Victorian fripperies of Sherlock Holmes, and (as much as I love those movies myself) it’s obvious which is the easiest sell to a non-English-speaking audience.

Give an audience characters they can identify with. According to audience research on Fast Five, US showings attract a much higher percentage of African-American and Latino filmgoers than comparable action movies.

Take a look at the cast, and you’ll see why. There are about a dozen major characters in the movie, and, what, maybe two of them are white?  Compare this to the average Hollywood ensemble movie, where the screen is as packed with Caucasian males as the audience is, and it becomes obvious that the franchise is delivering something these audiences don’t often see – minority characters in fulfilling, sympathetic roles.

If your movie can deliver in the same way, this under-served audience will love you for it.

Changing genre isn’t necessarily a franchise-killer. The first The Fast And The Furious movie is an undercover cop movie. So is the second, sort of. The third is a coming-of-age story (though its tenuous connection the other movies, with a new lead and few shared characters, makes its relevance dubious.) Four is “cop chases villain” with a dash of revenge drama, and five is a “one last job” heist. How can a franchise that does this possibly work?

It works because, as writers and film-makers, we sometimes over-estimate the importance of genre – and indeed, of plot. Audiences come because they love the characters.

Sure, they want to see those characters do certain familiar things, because those are part of their character function  – if James Bond doesn’t drink a martini, bed a girl, and face off with a supervillain, he’s not really James Bond any more –  but as long as your new genre supports the character function of your hero, it will work. (For example, Alien and Aliens are different genres, but both support Ripley’s character function – the warrior-mother, who nurtures and fights for her own – and so both work).

Everyone loves a family. Families – the ones we’re born into and the ones we build for ourselves – have been an explicit concern of the franchise from the very beginning. They come with the territory, in an undercover cop movie, but that sense of connection between the characters, the family loyalty and the sacrifices that loyalty sometimes calls for, has been driving the movies for a long time now.

I can’t say this strongly enough: audiences love family relationships. They don’t have to be biological or literal family. Groups of cops or firefighters, close friends, criminal gangs or the crew of a ship are all “family” in this sense of the word. But they must have that sense of unbreakable connection, responsibility, loyalty and self-sacrifice.

You could make a good case that everything I’ve ever written is about people without (meaningful) biological family who are constructing their own “families” and caring for each other. It’s certainly obvious in Wolfblood.  It’s certainly what attracts me to The Fast And The Furious franchise, and I think it plays a huge role in the worldwide success of these movies.

Create a “family’ that your audience would love to be part of, and they’ll stick with your characters forever.

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