EXCLUSIVE: Ending the wildest book-to-movie auction in recent and distant memory, Universal Pictures and Focus Features have acquired screen rights to E.L. James’ steamy novel Fifty Shades Of Grey. Focus Features will market and distribute the film in partnership with Universal, whose co-chairman Donna Langley heavily pursued the book.
I’d heard that 10 studio chiefs sweat it out all weekend to get the rights to this book about a 21-year-old college student who starts a relationship with a late-20s wealthy and handsome entrepreneur who leads her partner into an S&M and bondage deal where she is his submissive and keeps his emotions repressed. The relationship between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey deepens in Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.
I’m not hearing a specific winning bid amount, but I think if you go back to The Da Vinci Code, which sold for around $3 million or a bit higher against 3.5% of gross, this is comparable to what Universal has paid for Fifty Shades of Grey. The author and agent set approvals over things like script, director and lead cast, but they did not insist on a quick progress to production or even a guarantee that all three films would be made. Instead, their priority was to take their time and get it right as they target this love story explored through sexual politics, aimed at women 25-65. Universal looked at the property as an IP as opposed to simply a book. Clearly, the author and her agent weren’t looking to take the money and run.
All the heavy hitters were into this one, talking to one another and scrambling for any kind of advantage on the weekend with the author and her agent, Valerie Hoskins. This after the two spent a week in Hollywood meeting suitors and producers. They then went into radio silence all weekend while rumors of whopping bids surfaced with upfront sums like $4 million or better against first-dollar gross in the 5% neighborhood. That is big money, but the book is an undisputed grassroots e-book publishing phenomenon. Those numbers can be made to work because the movie can be made for around $30 million. In essence, bidders considered the book trilogy to be the star, and were willing to pay a star salary for an adult R-rated franchise. All of this culminated as The Hunger Games established itself as a powerhouse book to movie franchise, and it created a perfect storm.
Everybody knew all along that James and Hoskins were going to get paid, so this was not at all about getting the biggest payday. In fact, there were bigger offers on the table that the author could have taken and didn’t. I’m told that one thing that swayed the bidding was this: the author and agent got the prestige track record of James Schamus’ Focus Features, backed by the guaranteed passion of Langley, who chased this one hard. That means this was getting the full attention from all of Universal. The author and agent did a similar thing when they set Fifty Shades of Grey up with a publisher. They chose Random House because they wanted the backing and bucks of a big publishing house with a Vintage imprint that gives the trilogy the chance to be regarded as literature and not some trashy sex novel.
Going into the weekend, the studios and monied producers bidding included Warner Bros, Paramount, Fox 2000, Sony Pictures, Universal, Paramount, New Regency, Mandate and Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment, and then Harvey Weinstein got into it hard as it came down to not money but rather which studio made the best presentation and had the creative track record, something that Weinstein was selling energetically, I’ve heard.
This comes after the author, a former TV exec from London, and her agent, who runs VHA in London, met studios, monied production companies and producers over the past week before sending out their requests.