Why Do Car Racing Movies Bomb at the Box Office?

When you see the results of some of the most high-profile movies utilizing car racing, you’ll see there’s something not quite in tune with most movie viewers.

Movies with car chases have had a long life, though it’s clear they can easily wear out their welcome since there’s only so much you can do with car racing sequences. While we’ve seen some amazing action scenes involving classic cars over the years, movie producers still assume audiences want more of the same.

There may be an indication this isn’t the case based on the box office track record of similar movies over the last few years.

What is it about racing cars that moviegoers despise recently? Is it just fatigue from too many, or are we craving more character-driven interactions?

The only exceptions are two franchise films

Cars racing on a track
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series | Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

You apparently can’t go wrong when a Fast and Furious movie gets pitched to a studio. The long-running franchise is now up to ten movies and shows no signs of slowing down. As you can see, from Box Office Mojo, the F&F franchise has a huge box office take, placing them in the upper echelons of car racing movies.

Second to them is the Cars franchise from Pixar. These two aren’t necessarily surprising considering they cater to specific niches and demographics. They also have appealing characters rising above merely focusing on car chases.

Every other movie related to racing cars have flopped recently, maybe not because of having cars. In some cases, they were just derivative of what we’ve already seen.

Those of you who’ve watched car movies over the years know we’ve seen some car chase scenes becoming major works of cinematic art. Trying to offer something fresh in that is a bigger challenge than directors are willing to admit.

Is it the cars or the writing?

There may be two things wrong with car movies, even though everything failing with audiences has to be centered mostly on the writing. Let’s never forget a good script is the only thing making a movie truly work since it all comes down to memorable dialogue and characters. Scripts also give direction on how most scenes should be constructed as well.

When you take a recent movie like Need for Speed (starring Aaron Paul), the screenwriting team apparently couldn’t help but have a little bit of Fast and Furious in their heads when adapting it from the popular NfS video game.

As a result, it ended up being overly derivative if also a bit of a product placement for the star car in the movie: The 2015 edition of the Ford Mustang. To date, the movie made far under what its budget was.

Then you have other racing movies that were directly about car racing. Films like Ron Howard’s biopic Rush, plus documentaries like Senna didn’t do as well as expected.

You even have one 2019 car racing movie with a dash of romance and a talking dog: The Art of Racing in the Rain. Outside of having star Milo Ventimiglia (plus Kevin Costner as the dog, Enzo), it only made modest profit.

It makes us wonder if there’s still a really good, original idea waiting for a car movie to capture the public’s imagination.

Car racing and chasing might be frowned upon now in a more cautious world

It’s possible we have to look to sociological reasons behind movies about cars not doing well in theaters. Chase scenes involving cars more or less peaked in past decades with varying degrees of complexity in making them look compelling.

One of the most incredible within the last four years was in Mad Max: Fury Road, which was a major hit. Nevertheless, it’s a lot of work to put together a car chase sequence with complete innovation. Fury Road had the advantage of the open desert rather than having to close down streets in a major city.

With other car movies not doing well, it might be from audiences seeing too many prominent people die in car accidents. Things happening in the real world always correlate directly to how people react to things on the big screen.

In the end, it may be Fast and Furious as the lone survivor of car racing movies soon, no matter if there are likely dozens of new car movie ideas in the blacklist.