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Will the ‘Fast & Furious’ franchise go on without Paul Walker?

The death of Paul Walker, 40, in an explosive car crash in Southern California on Saturday afternoon poses significant problems for “Fast & Furious,” the film franchise that made him a movie star. The seventh installment of the car-savvy franchise, in which Walker played a leading character, undercover Los Angeles police officer Brian O’Conner, had been filming in Atlanta when the cast and crew took a break for Thanksgiving. Walker and his co-stars were slated to return Sunday to resume production on Monday.

Filming was abruptly halted following Walker’s death, and a conference call between director James Wan and producer Neal Mortiz was held less than a day later to discuss the future of the big-budget action movie, which has proven to be the most successful ongoing film franchise for Universal – making around $2.3 billion worldwide so far.

According to sources with connections to the half-finished production, it’s highly unlikely that the film will be scrapped.

“Everyone is playing cards close to the chest, but my guess is that they’ll powwow on with it,” one film industry insider said, adding that there are an array of creative options that could be considered, from Walker’s character’s son growing up to introducing a new face – although a re-cast is not likely to happen.

The current plot involves Jason Statham, playing the brother of Luke Evans’ character from “Fast & Furious 6,” on a hunt to kill Dominic (Vin Diesel) and his team as revenge for his brother's death in the last film. The end credit scene of “Fast & Furious 6” saw Statham's character killing Han (Sung Kang), which actually took place at the end of “The Fast & the Furious: Tokyo Drift.” While it was the third film in the series, the events of “Tokyo Drift” actually occur after “Fast & Furious 6” and before the seventh film, which could provide a pivotal rewrite opening.

“In a special sneak peek scene from ‘Fast & Furious 7’ included on the ‘Fast & Furious 6’ Blu-ray available next week, we see Dom, Brian (Walker), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Tej (Ludacris) at Han's funeral. The characters realize that they are being hunted by Ian Shaw (Statham) and vow to attend no more funerals except for his,” explained Jami Philbrick, managing editor for the film news site iamROGUE.com. “I could very easily see the script being reworked so that Brian perishes before they are able to put a stop to Shaw. It would make sense to the plot and, if done right, could be a fitting end to the character and a tribute to Walker.”

This is not the first time Hollywood honchos have had to deal with the sad scenario of a film star dying during filming. In 1958, Tyrone Power died of a heart attack while filming a sword-fighting scene for “Solomon & Sheba” and was replaced by Yul Brynner. Vic Morrow was killed along with two child actors in a helicopter accident during the filming of “The Twilight Zone: The Movie” in 1983, but enough footage existed to complete his segment of the movie. Ten years later, Brandon Lee accidentally killed himself with a prop pistol during filming of “The Crow,” prompting Paramount to drop the film, although Miramax later picked it up and used script rewrites, stand-in and digital effects to complete the film. And following the 2008 death of Heath Ledger, his character in “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” was split into multiple incarnations, each played by admiring friends Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell.

It’s expected that the “Fast & Furious” franchise film will continue beyond this seventh installment, especially given that the franchise has typically continued to increase in popularity. While the first one in 2001 made $207 million worldwide, 2011’s fifth film made $306 million, and last year’s “Fast & Furious 7” surged up to $786 million. Yet marketing the upcoming movie and the franchise in general may also prove to be a challenging task for Universal, given that Walker was killed in a manner similar to what the franchise glorifies – fast driving and fancy cars.

“Dealing with the tragedy may take a toll on the seventh film’s storyline and creative team, but I would expect that even if there is an extended break, all parties will want to continue with the franchise as long as it feels like there is still gas in the tank,” said L.A-based pop culture and entertainment expert Scott Huver. “Walker’s death does unfortunately introduce both a tragic element and a morbid curiosity to the seventh film that his co-stars will have to contend with during promotion. It may hinder the in-progress creative process, but it won’t hurt the attention of the film when it is released.”

A rep for Universal Pictures did not respond to a request for comment on the future of the film, but the studio did release a statement over the weekend that they were all “heartbroken,” referring to Walker as “one of the most beloved and respected members of our studio family for 14 years.” Mortiz’s office also declined to comment on “Fast 7,” but the prominent producer told photographers outside LAX on Sunday that the team needs time to mourn Walker’s death before decisions can be made regarding how to proceed with the production.

And in what some may perceive as an eerie twist-of-fate, Philbrick spoke to the screen star just a couple of weeks ago and asked if he planned to do a “Fast 8.”

“I don’t know if I’ll be there, bro,” Walker responded.

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