35 MPH / The Movie of the Year

Speed Makes a Splash with Critics and Audiences

Speed is here! The film finally releases to the masses on June 10, 1994, on 2,140 screens nationwide. It is an instant hit and a totally unexpected, overachieving success. The movie pulls in $14,456,194 that first weekend, or about $6,540 per screen. It even exceeds Fox’s expectations after the studio brass already knew, thanks to the test screening process, that they had something special on their hands.

Speed Newspaper Ad
Ad for Speed‘s theatrical release featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Almost immediately, the audience embraced the movie,” director Jan de Bont says. “It was so fantastic. You cannot even imagine that the audience responds in the same way as you always would hope they would do, but loud. I mean, really responsive. Reacting to what’s happening. Reacting to the dialogue quite often. It’s a rarity, I think. I mean, the studio was so excited.”

Indeed, in the halls of Fox, it’s high fives all around.

“Not only was there tremendous excitement about it, or, you know, the numbers were bigger than we had thought, but the sort of exit polls and all those things were just really high,” former Fox production president Tom Jacobson recalls. “So, it’s, like, ‘Yeah! We did good!’ Also, this was the early days of international really blowing up. This movie, like Independence Day, did fantastically overseas. Almost two-to-one.”

But here’s the kicker. Speed would not only be a favorite among audiences. It would be a critical darling as well. A thorough assessment of critics’ top 10 lists from 1994 even puts the film firmly amongst the year’s most well-reviewed releases, ahead of films like Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway, Frank Darabont’s Best Picture nominee The Shawshank Redemption and Disney’s smash animated hit The Lion King.

However, the most sterling reaction to the movie, the one with a pull quote for the ages that would be plastered on all of Speed‘s marketing material, comes courtesy of film critic Anthony Lane in the pages of The New Yorker. “Speed is set in Los Angeles,” Lane would write. “Most of it takes place on a bus. It is a film full of explosions but bare of emotional development. Its characters are no more than sketches. It addresses no social concerns. It is morally inert. It’s the movie of the year.”

Those last five words would ring out across the ages.

Speed VHS
The Speed VHS hit shelves on November 15, 1994.

“Well, he’s right. It’s all true,” screenwriter Graham Yost says. “It was certainly the movie of my year.”

After debuting in the top spot, Speed maintains firm footing in the higher box office tiers throughout the summer. Finally, on November 15, 1994, the VHS drops in the fall, proving to be yet another example of Speed breaking the mold on its way to grinding out a massive profit.

“At that point, you put action out for rent, because the average guy wouldn’t want to own the movie,” former Fox exec Jorge Saralegui says. “There were other movies that were available only for sale. Action movies were only for rent.”

Adds former Fox Filmed Entertainment Bill Mechanic, who had set forth the ’90s home-video paradigm at his former post at Disney: “The simple answer is that I believe people collect things that are good, and movies that are fun like Speed are rewatchable.”

All of that and more on this week’s episode of 50 MPH!


Kris Tapley Your Host:

Kris has covered the entertainment industry for nearly two decades, with bylines at Variety, The New York Times, Empire and Vanity Fair. He now works as a writer and consultant in Los Angeles, where he lives with his loving wife, lively son and lazy cat. He likes Speed.