Many people look at Vin Diesel and see the well-muscled action star of The Fast and the Furious; the high-speed, high-testosterone thrill ride that dominates box office figures with adrenaline fueled car chases. These movies are not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea and rarely are they considered high art; but they certainly have captured the attention of audiences around the world for a staggering six films (with a seventh slated for 2014).
What is distinctive is that this is a franchise built on an original narrative concept, a true rarity in the current Hollywood Blockbuster realm. On top of that, it’s not the only original feature franchise where Diesel is at the core not just as an actor, but also as the visionary voice of development. These successes come from their lead actor, a role-playing game devotee and passionate filmmaker, Vin Diesel. Diesel clearly understands and employs transmedia techniques to extend these narratives across platforms even if he doesn’t discuss the process in those terms.
Let’s look at The Fast and The Furious, high-speed, loud, featuring street parties, car chases, cops, robbers, and a bumping soundtrack. What you can see when you place the films end to end, is an epic saga that weaves together the lives of the Turetto family and their associates as they negotiate the ins and outs of their global criminal enterprise. Here is a list of Fast and the Furious narratives in order of their fictional chronology (rather than release date):
The Fast and the Furious (2001)
An FBI agent, Brian O’Connor (Walker), goes undercover to uncover a gang of theves who perform heists during high-speed car chases. The gang, led by Dom Turetto (Diesel) lets O'Connor into their crew ultimately bonding with him. In the end, O'Connor lets Turetto escape from the FBI.
(live-action short film, 2003)
After allowing Dom to escape, O’Connor is a fugitive from the law and flees from Los Angeles to Miami.
2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)
Fugitive O’Connor helps the FBI & U.S. Customs Service catch a drug lord in Miami in return for a pardon.
Los Bandoleros (written and directed by Vin Diesel, 2009)
The Turetto family reuintes and learns about a shipment they can heist, which occurs in the beginning of Fast & Furious.
Fast & Furious (produced by Diesel, 2009)
O’Connor, once again an FBI Agent, tracks down Dom and his team to take down another drug lord, Barga. Leti, Dom’s long-time girlfriend, is killed. Dom and his gang return to the states expecting clemency in return for their aid instead are betrayed by the FBI. O’Connor breaks Dom out of prison and goes on the run with the group.
Fast Five (produced by Diesel, 2011)
The Turetto crime family, including O’Connor who is now married to Dom’s sister Mia are framed for a set of murders in Brazil and must elude Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and bring down the real killers. Among their crew are Han, and an entourage of supporting characters from the previous films.
Fast & Furious: Showdown (2013)
A console racing game that takes the Turetto Crew on heists around the world between Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6.
Fast & Furious 6 (produced by Diesel, 2013)
Luke Hobbs tracks down the Turetto family to help him take down an international criminal car gang that is trying to get their hands on a nuclear device. The international criminal gang includes Leti, who was not dead as assumed in Fast & Furious but alive with amnesia. At the end of the film, Han leaves the group to go to Japan.
The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift(third in chronological release, 2006)
A high school age street racer, Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is given the choice of jail or moving to japan to live with his father. He finds his way into Tokyo’s drift-racing scene and the yakuza underworld where he meets Han and becomes part of his crew; ultimately having to prove himself after Han’s death.
Fast & Furious 6 End Credits Scene (2013)
Recontextualizes an iconic death scene to introduce a new villain, Ian Shaw (Jason Statham), brother to Fast & Furious 6 villain, Owen Shaw, who taunts Dom during Han’s death.
Fast Seven (produced by Diesel, 2014)
Ian Shaw and the Turetto crew face off.
Wikipedia estimates The Fast and The Furious film series to have earned a worldwide box office total of $2,228,198,818 on a budget of $569,000,000.
What did Diesel do?
Vin Diesel won many fanboy hearts when he revealed that he played Dungeons & Dragons early in his career, and it has been a steady reference point in interviews when he’s asked about his development process.
“Maybe because I'm a Dungeons & Dragons head, my approach to everything is a little more thought-out.”
All three of his active franchises have clearly benefitted from his creative leadership and commitment to the characters he portrays. The influences he cites when discussing character, story and overall development are consistently drawn from ideas of story worlds and sagas that are larger than single screenplays.
Roleplaying games are fascinating as models for character and story development because they ask players to consider their characters outside of individual scenes, screenplays or platforms. This allows players to creatively imagine what happens in a platform neutral fashion before tailoring responses to a specific storyline. Thinking about these attributes gives Diesel the method to build characters across platforms, a wider canvas than a movie screen.
Why is this creative vision, and Vin Diesel specifically so important to these franchises?
While 2 Fast 2 Furious and Tokyo Drift did reasonably well, neither film starred Vin Diesel as the franchise’s central character, Dom Turetto. After The Fast and the Furious, the Second and Third films’ critical reception dropped markedly (36% and 35% from Rotten Tomatoes to the first film’s 52%). The return of the Vin Diesel to the franchise (and at this point as a producer) doubled the box office of the previous film and brought Dom Turetto back into the story world, bringing the other stories into a larger context.
By bringing back what made the stories of the franchise most exciting – the characters whose chemistry made the movies more than just car chases – audiences returned and expanded. The collaboration between Diesel and Director, Justin Lin has solidified the story world, bridging the story lines that had been established and bring them all together in a (mostly) coherent superstory arc. Capping it off by introducing an A-List villain for Fast Seven during the end credits of Fast & Furious 6, which ties the characters back events from Tokyo Drift.
Being able to return these storylines that had begun to stray fairly widely from the original film into a super story resonated strongly with audiences. It gave the franchise a chance to demonstrate that there were advantages to chasing the production across its many films and games and validate continued engagement in the storyline. Familiar and beloved characters were given opportunities to return or take larger roles in subsequent stories that explored different periods of time in the fictional lives of the Turetto family.
The challenges the franchise faced – compared to other major blockbuster series – was to develop a truly original story world. They didn’t have existing comics or a bestselling novel series to draw from; they needed to build their own mythology and the person with the clear skills and intention to lead – Vin Diesel.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Fast films are very different from the other major blockbuster franchises this summer. It’s not a superhero movie or a fantasy saga. What, to you, is the secret to the longevity of the franchise?
VIN DIESEL: The first thing to note is that that was once a curse: The fact that we didn’t have novels, we didn’t have stories that people would accept as a saga. There wasn’t the Harry Potter books. There wasn’t the Tolkien books. There weren’t the various comic issues that the whole public could identify with. We had none of that. If you notice the first three movies, they were fragmented; they were unconnected — which was part of the reason why I wasn’t keen on continuing the franchise in the early stages. After the first movie, they were still treating it the way Hollywood treated franchises in the ’80s and ’90s. Take the brand, throw any story together, and sell the brand.
When I came back, they wanted me to be a producer. It was evident to me that the audience was kind of getting used to episodic storytelling. The only people in Hollywood that could do it were people that had the backing of previously-written novels. If you didn’t have that, you’d be crazy to think that you could tell an episodic story. But that was the game, and that was the goal. In this new age of filmmaking, if the audience sees a movie, they want to carry that equity with them to the next movie. We’re in a gaming society now. It’s about rewards. That approach is what made the difference, and took us from where we were with Tokyo Drift to tripling those numbers for Fast & Furious 4.
To be accurate about Fast, you gotta look at it as two trilogies so far. 6 is the conclusion of the second trilogy. And 6 was fleshed out while we were doing Fast 4. My first approach to the studio — to give you perspective of how deep I was thinking about this trilogy — I went to the studio and said: “Let’s do 4, 5, and 6 together.” After we did 4, I said: “Let’s do 5 and 6 together.” After we did 5, I said: “Let’s do 6 and 7 together.” Now they’re getting the momentum, and they’re starting to feel comfortable in finally recognizing this as a saga, as opposed to a franchise that’s a brand that’s just rehashing, that puts the brand on the poster.
This is not the only franchise where Diesel’s stamp is readily apparent. Hitting theatres in September 2013, Riddick is the third film in the Riddick series originated in Pitch Black. If you want to see a franchise that understands transmedia narrative principles… look no further.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (console game, 2004)
A criminal, Richard B. Riddick, must escape from Butcher Bay penal colony, taking down wicked prisoners and cruel wardens in the process. William J. Johns, the bounty hunter who turned Riddick in is imprisoned instead of rewarded and escapes with Riddick.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena (console game, 2009)
Riddick and Johns are captured by mercenaries aboard their ship, only to discover that the ship was recently taken over and the previous occupants are being turned into biotech drones by Gale Revas, who immediately captures Johns. Riddick releases the human prisoners and ultimately kills their leader, then escaping into space.
Pitch Black (2000)
A spaceship crashes on an unknown planet and its passengers, including Riddick and Johns – who has captured Riddick again – must fight their way to a ship through ravenous monsters. Ultimately, the only survivors are Riddick, “Imam”, and a young girl named, Jack.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury (animated, 2004)
Shortly after escaping Jack is picked up by a ship of mercenaries. The ship’s owner hopes to collect Riddick for a menagerie of criminals she maintains and the trio must escape the ship. Riddick delivers the other two to safety before heading off to parts unknown.
The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)
Riddick seeks out Imam and Jack just as their planet is invaded by the authoritarian Necromonger Army. The Necromongers seek to recruit or kill Riddick because their Lord Chancellor is prophesized to be killed by a Furyan. This reveals Riddick’s origins as the last Furyan. Riddick ultimately kills the Lord Chancellor taking control of the vast Necromonger forces but Jack, now Riddick’s love interest, is killed in the process.
Riddick: Rule the Dark (September 6, 2013)
Abandoned by the Necromonger army after a coup, Riddick must face off against bounty hunters and alien monsters to escape a harsh planet.
If you look at the patterns, Diesel has been savvy enough to realize the power of the story worlds his characters inhabit and has made himself available to be a part of the narrative production on multiple platforms. This is not always the case for big budget franchises, as video games and animations are sometimes forced to choose voice-alikes rather than the cast of films to produce games or animated content. Appearing in these games is one thing but there is a simple fact that the console games that performed well – despite the Chronicles of Riddick’s disappointing box office – were actually good.
As many who have played licensed games have found, games that are associated with feature films have a spotty history of quality at best. For the Riddick games, they actually performed better than the film and had higher ratings from critics and audience members (Metacritic ratings of 82 for Assault on Dark Athena and 90 for Escape from Butcher Bay). While the film went into epic, sprawling scope the video games remained closer to the Riddick story in Pitch Black, which focused on dark, often monster-filled heists and missions. The new film also depicts a story that stays smaller, returning Riddick to a survival situation where Riddick is hunted by humans and monsters and must make choices based on a honed internal moral code.
This series comes from an original mythology created largely from Vin Diesel’s own mind. If Riddick had not been acted by Vin Diesel, and Vin Diesel not had the passion to push for the continuation of the series on multiple platforms it could have very easily disappeared like so many sci-fi features. Knowing how to develop the character and narratives in games saved the franchise because it returned investment even though a feature film underperformed.
Diesel’s passion for the better part of the last decade has been the reason the world will see another Riddick film. His ability to demonstrate the viability of these story worlds in a variety of revenue generating touchpoints means that there is hope for the health of the whole story world even when one fails to meet it’s financial expectations. That is if the visionary has the patience, resilience and perseverance to continue to pursue the franchise.
Even though each of these franchises has seen at least one underperforming production piece, the franchise story world was sustainable. The future potential of the story world still clearly existed. Just because one production didn’t earn as much, it didn’t tank the franchise in the long-term. There was enough additional revenue from alternative story platforms or enough trust in the story world based on previous success to see that while this might have been a hiccup in a still healthy business proposition.
Placing the integrity of the story world as the primary concern has proven to bulletproof his franchises. Allowing for their continuation even after hiccups, showing the power of mitigating losses by providing multiple platforms of revenue generating content to support releases.
As a creator, Vin Diesel has shown that as long as he’s there, the stories he’s building will continue. This is shown over and over again in his commitment to Riddick, Hannibal and even Xander Cage of the xXx series that last saw a film in 2005. Vin Diesel has a strong sense of what it takes to develop and sustain original story worlds in Hollywood. Diesel has established an identity around building these characters and smartly managed his social media presence – he has 43 Million Facebook fans – to help demonstrate his personal appeal and the appeal of his story worlds. He’s also been actively seeking out another transmedia story world for years, that has not been able to make it to screens, a big budget epic exploration of Hannibal of Carthage.
VIN DIESEL: I feel like I’ve satisfied two of the three most prominent promises that I started the [Facebook] page with. The first was that you would see Riddick, even though it took nine years. The other was that you would see the continuation of the Dom/Leti story. That was also an impossibility. And then the third I didn’t do yet.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Are you referring to the Hannibal the Conqueror project?
VIN DIESEL: That’s the hardest one. I was just looking at a script, 10 years old, by David Franzoni, that was my first Hannibal draft. To think that 10 years later, we’re still marching towards the Alps is surreal. Now, after Universal’s seen me produce this Fast trilogy, they are much more cautious about letting [the Hannibal] trilogy go to another studio. Now they feel like: “This is the trilogy guy, this is the guy who thinks in trilogies, he can do that.” There is another studio that’s saying they want to do all three films, do the trilogy.
While not everyone has wrapped their head around this methodology, Vin Diesel clearly has a sense of its core tenets:
- The Story World comes first.
- Multiple platforms can protect a franchise against single points of failure.
- Commitment and Patience can pay off, so stick to it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Time to start practicing riding war elephants!
VIN DIESEL: I started practicing riding African elephants 10 years ago.”
Caitlin Burns is a Transmedia Producer with Starlight Runner Entertainment and has worked on properties ranging from Pirates of the Caribbean for The Walt Disney Company and James Cameron’s Avatar, to Halo for Microsoft and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for Nickelodeon. She is a Board Member of the Producer’s Guild of America’s New Media Council and an Advisor to the Tribeca Film Institute’s New Media Fund. Find her on Twitter: @Caitlin_Burns
Special thanks to Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment: @Jeff_Gomez for his editorial input into this piece.