Universal chiefs have put the late Paul Walker at the forefront of the global marketing campaign for Fast & Furious 7, which is expected to break box office records when it roars into action this weekend.
The film, directed by Saw co-creator James Wan and known in the US as Furious 7, will roll out in more than 14,500 theatres in 65 territories including the US and is set to play in a record global Imax footprint of more than 800 venues.
Studio marketing executives and the film-makers have always regarded Walker, who died in a car accident on November 30 2013 during a break from shooting, as a key element in the $2.4bn franchise.
And they knew fans of the action series wanted to see their idol at the vanguard of the promotional campaign for Fast & Furious 7, which opened in France, Germany and South Korea on April 1 and debuts in North America and the UK on Friday.
The franchise’s huge number of followers enjoy a special relationship with the Fast and Furious film-makers, studio chiefs and Vin Diesel, Walker’s close friend who is the spiritual heart of the long-running narrative that started in 2001.
Diesel himself is renowned for routinely baring his soul to fans via social media posts and he and his compadres have often sought the opinion of their die-hard acolytes.
Indeed online support has ballooned over 14 years of Fast And Furious films to more than 300m followers – a vocal social media behemoth that in population terms would rank as the world’s fourth biggest country.
So the studio had to get it right after Walker died. They did, starting with a series of three notes addressed to the fans.
The first in December 2013 announced the temporary halt of production while everybody discussed how – and if – they should move ahead with the seventh chapter.
The second missive went out in April 2014 when shooting resumed and the third in July 2014 announced the end of principal photography.
The studio paid tribute in that final note to the unflagging support from its social media fanbase. “There was a time when we didn’t know how we could go on, or even if we should,” the note read. “But we listened to you, and you inspired us not only to keep going but to try and make the best Fast & Furious movie yet.”
As one person close to the franchise said, “For a while there was a focus on how do we grieve as a family. We decided on the DVD release of Fast & Furious 6 to donate a large portion of proceeds to [Walker’s charity] Reach Out Worldwide.
“After that it was determined whether or not we were going to move forward. Then it was about looking at the footage and seeing what we had and finding a path to it.”
The studio and the fans wanted the film-makers to use the footage they had and get the seventh episode in the can. They pulled it off thanks to a sensitive revised screenplay and a splash of effects magic.
For new scenes involving Walker’s character Brian O’Conner, Wan and his team of wizards rotoscoped Walker’s face on to the bodies of Walker’s brothers Cody and Caleb acting as body doubles.
The result is a fitting tribute to the series and Walker himself. When the studio arranged a surprise world premiere at SXSW last month the audience lapped it up. On Wednesday night thousands lined up to see the cast attend the Hollywood premiere.
Walker is there too, on billboards across the US and the world. In one of the American posters he can be seen standing beside the other six lead characters of the franchise, just like one of the family as he has always been.
In a more intimate black-and-white concept that carries the legend ‘One Last Ride’, Walker looks towards Diesel as his friend looms in the foreground, eyes downcast.
“At the end of the day he’s a star of our film and he should be celebrated,” said a studio insider.