What Fast And Furious Can Teach Us about Economics

The ninth installment of the Fast and Furious franchise – Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw- has released in theatres worldwide. Dwayne Johnson and Jason Stratham take up the roles of Hobbs and Shaw respectively, in the fast paced, logic defying, macho man movie. This installment is however unique as it does not star Vin Diesel, the third leg of the trio from the movies.

The Fast and Furious movie franchise has been widely successful. In fact, almost each new installment of the movies has brought in more box office revenue than its predecessor, and thus this series has remained the Universal Pictures biggest franchise of all times. Now since economics is a discipline that can be applied in every domain of life, it would be interesting to see if under the Fast and Furious movies, one can make economic inferences, while also trying to understand what arrangements have been made in the film that assist in its success.

Human nature and productive output

A key aspect of the Fast and Furious films is the nod towards family bonds. In the first film, Brian O’Conner abandons obligations to the law to complete a debt he owed to Toretto. In the second movie, O’Conner’s actions are once again motivated by the chance to discharge an unrelated debt to a childhood friend rather than his duty towards law. In every subsequent fast and furious movie, obligations and trust placed on friends or family is much more potent than towards any abstract institution like the law or the government. Even in the latest movie, we can see in the trailer that although Hobbs and Shaw were recruited by a governing agency, their actions and determination is much higher as it involved Shaw’s sister. We also see Hobbs taking Shaw and his sister back to his family estate to enlist the help of his own family for their next move.

These instances of greater family loyalty as compared to the faith on abstract institutions represent a society where there is high income inequality and a lack of trust on regulating authorities. A lack of trust on external authorities is a common feature of societies with high and growing levels of income inequality. The economist John Stuart Mill emphasises the importance of trust and how it could have massive economic significance. A study conducted with US measured the percentage of state residents who think that “most people can be trusted” and then analysed the long-term economic growth of those states while controlling a host of economic and political factors such as initial levels of education and income. It was found that a 10 percentage-point increase in trust increases the growth rate of GDP by 0.5 percentage points over five years.

Trust in institutions is also important because it lowers transaction costs in the society. When there is trust, less resources are spent verifying and policing. With higher levels of trust, people are more likely to engage in greater risks that can be quite economically beneficial. Therefore, the outlook of the characters of Toretto, Hobbs and Shaw is quite destructive of social institutions which are needed to generate economic prosperity. Since these characters are role models, it is likely that people will emulate the behaviour of their ideals and show similar levels of disregard to society, thus potentially plunging our world towards depressions and economic failures. So even though in the movies, these characters are heroes, in real life the behaviour of these agents is what might be the one hindering the prosperity of society.

The brand factor

When one thinks of the Fast and Furious series, one immediately associates it with actors like Vin Diesel, Jason Stratham, Dwayne Johnson and even Paul Walker. These actors have mega star statuses and massive audience pull power. It is known that the protagonists of a movie can have a high influence on the earning of a film, which makes it extremely vital to rope in the right actors.

A 1997 paper investigated how star power affects participants responses to films. The researchers presented films to the participants and recorded the responses of their likelihood to watch the film when it has a popular star and when it does not. It was found that the participants had a more favourable responses towards films with well-known stars, than those without a popular name in the cast. However, critics’ comments also had an influence on the participants’ responses regarding watching the film. When critics rated a movie favourably, it increased the possibility that the audience would watch the film; but this aspect still had lower impact than the star pulling power. People were willing to watch negatively rated movies if it starred their favourite actor. This shows how strong the brand effect of a star is when evaluating the performance of the movie.

When a star is curated as a brand, the issue of brand maintenance pops up. In this movie series the main actors- Vin Diesel, Jason Stratham and Dwayne Johnson- all play characters who are tough men, who do not like getting beaten up and have certain principles of how they should behave. These actors are very concerned about their fight statistics in the movies and want to show that their movie characters give as much as they get. This simply mean that in a face off in the movie, their character must throw in an equal or greater amount of punches and kicks, than what they receive. Vin Diesel wanted to assign numerical values to every fight action move – like head butts and body slams – so that he could calculate and determine if the actors were getting knocked around evenly. Jason Stratham negotiated an agreement with the studios that there would be certain boundaries for his character. His character would not always get pummeled and lose fights, nor would he kill a woman or child on screen. Both these methods put forth by Vin Diesel and Jason Stratham were a way to protect their egos and essentially maintain their macho man status.

There are a lot of monetary stakes that get involved when protecting the ego of these action stars. The Fast and Furious movies cost roughly $150 million to produce which means that in order to gain a profit, the movie had to be a hit everywhere. The Fast and Furious series is tied down to these three core actors; it thus becomes a sort of necessity to appease the egos of these stars. In fact, Hobbs and Shaw received a lot of criticism, as the most recent movie did not star Vin Diesel. Many people said that this iteration of Fast and Furious should not be part of the original franchise but a spinoff. These actors have over time distinguished themselves as brands base on their other projects; they are the recognised as action stars. Thus, they are like oligopoly market structure, they differentiate themselves by their brand value, their pricing power and the ability to attract audiences. Therefore, when put together in a movie, it can have a high chance of success if it caters to the egos of these stars.

The Fast and Furious cycle

A look at the top ten IMDB’s All Time Worldwide Box Office hits list show that 7 of the top ten spots are filled with sequels or franchise movies. Original stand-alone movies have more risk as there is a lot of uncertainty involved, like whether the audience’s emotions would resonate with the film story, if the returns from the films could be more than normal profit etc. Franchise or sequel films have lower risk than the former as the theme and characters are already loved. Fan retention and loyalty is very significant in furthering the success of the film. Therefore, when investors are given the choice of investing in a franchise/ sequel film or an original stand-alone film, its likely they would go with the franchise film. This is also the reason as to why we have seen an increase in reboots of old films; a successful reboot being Christopher Nolan’s reboot of Batman which started with Batman Begins in 2005. However not all reboot/ franchise films are successful. An example is the reboot of Spiderman – The Amazing Spiderman – which faced lower profits compared to the original Spiderman movies and resulted in a scrape off further with the subsequent Amazing Spiderman movies post the second film. Luckily Fast and Furious is still going strong and investors are very likely to reinvest in the movie, furthering the possibility of a never-ending cycle of Fast and Furious movies.

At the end of the day, Fast and Furious is undoubtedly a very successful franchise. The witty dialogues, action sequences, comic timing and the popularity of the actors, all help in boosting the success of these movies. Understanding the success of this film franchise can help Hollywood in identifying what the elements needed for a successful film franchise are. But at the same time, while original movie content does come back as reboots, and franchise films help bring in profits, these not the true essence of cinema. They may not depict the realities of life, which is clearly discernible in the Fast and Furious series. The movies initially started out as nods to street racing and cars but now it is more exotic with its ‘saving the world’ action sequences. There has been a deviation from the essence of the original movies, but if it makes money, it is quite plausible that the producers do not care too much about this.

Picture Courtesy- TOI


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