Paul Walker’s Death Complicates ‘Fast & Furious 7’ Filming

CALIFORNIA — Universal Pictures executives, still reeling from the weekend death of one of the stars of their “Fast & Furious” films, got down to the difficult business on Monday of figuring out how to salvage their No. 1 movie franchise.

But as they huddled in morning meetings on an unusually somber lot here, it was clear there were still far more questions than answers.

The death of Paul Walker, 40, would have presented substantial challenges for Universal under the best of circumstances. To finish “Fast & Furious 7” in time for a planned July 11 release, the company has been operating under an aggressive, little-room-for-delays production schedule. Filming is still only half finished, unusual for a movie of this size so close to release, and Mr. Walker played a leading role.

But the manner of Mr. Walker’s death — he died in a fiery car crash eerily similar to what the “Fast & Furious” movies present as entertainment — amplifies the challenges. Even if the script can be reworked, it could be hard to motivate a close-knit cast to quickly resume filming happy-go-lucky car chase sequences. It could be more challenging to sensitively market a film filled with fast driving and exploding cars.

Paul Walker“Because there is this horrible irony where life is imitating art, they have a very, very fine line to walk, both with revisions to the script and in the marketing campaign,” said Dennis Rice, a marketing consultant who has held top positions at Miramax, United Artists and Disney.

“They will succeed in the end, in part because they must,” he added. “As horrible as his death was, there is a business investment to protect.”

The “Fast & Furious” movies cost roughly $150 million to produce and at least $100 million more to market. The blockbuster franchise has taken in about $3 billion at the box office over the last 12 years, after adjusting for inflation. “Fast & Furious 7” is by far Universal’s biggest movie for 2014.

A Universal spokeswoman had no comment on Monday.

People with knowledge of the studio’s internal response, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of respect for Mr. Walker and his family, described a leadership team that put aside their own emotions and swiftly began to deal with the crisis.

When word reached the studio late Saturday afternoon of Mr. Walker’s death, executives were still scattered for the Thanksgiving holiday. The studio’s communications executive nonetheless managed to rush out a heartfelt public statement. “This loss is devastating to us,” it read in part. “Paul was truly one of the most beloved and respected members of our studio family.”

Ron Meyer, who became vice chairman of NBC Universal, and his two top movie officers, Jeff Shell, chairman of the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, and Donna Langley, chairwoman of Universal Pictures, divided duties. Mr. Meyer personally called Mr. Walker’s family members, every “Fast & Furious” cast member, their agents and dozens of other production personnel.

Ms. Langley and her lieutenants began to assess how the production might be salvaged, poring through scripts and film already shot. Mr. Shell would sort out business and legal questions concerning production delays.

Still to be decided: Do they write his death into the film? Cut his performance? Hire another actor to finish his role? Universal is helped by the franchise itself, movie experts say, because the films have a history of mismatched story lines and also began relying more on crime stories, playing down dangerous street racing.

Public safety announcements to go with DVDs of the film were recorded. Mr. Walker recorded one. “All the driving sequences you see in the film are done by experienced professionals on closed courses. Be safe. Drive smart. Stay legal.”

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