By Thursday, author E.L. James and her British lit agent Valerie Hoskins will have completed a surreal round of meetings with the heads of studios, monied production companies and top producers for screen rights to 50 Shades of Grey. The steamy potboiler e-book is about a 21-year old soon to be college graduate named Anastasia Steele, who starts an S&M relationship with Christian Grey, a handsome entrepreneur in his late twenties. He dominates her sexually and emotionally and makes her his submissive partner, even though he withholds his emotions. Tomorrow, a number of producers will court James and Hoskins, hoping to be attached at one of the studios that will be bidding on the novel, the first of a trilogy. Actual bidding is expected to take place on Friday, and trusted sources tell me that seven-figure offers will fly and that this will be the biggest book rights auction in a long time, coming at a time when studios find every reason not to spend big on books.
Why is the town so hot and bothered about what started as a self published e-book that flew under the radar until a Today Show segment and New York Times article turned up the heat? Those who don’t get it are scratching their heads and dismissing it as “mommy porn” and say while it will be aimed at the female demo that embraced Eat Pray Love and Sex and the City, these two go at it like rabbits in vivid S&M and bondage scenarios that will lead to a sure-fire R rating at least. Guys probably aren’t coming, and that rating locks out the young girls.
Those who do get it say that the author has tapped into a perfect storm of female sexuality and taboo romance with an unattainable man, themes common to works like Twilight Saga and True Blood. They say the book has stimulated an elusive zeitgeist hot button that every studio wants in a book to movie franchise. Guys might not get it, but it’s spreading like wildfire among females age ranging from young women to grandmothers. I’ve even heard that the book’s mature female readership loves the fact its penetration has been in e-book form: they want to read it but don’t want to be seen reading it. The fact that the auction is being held on the eve of The Hunger Games opening is also helping things, even though the target audience and subject matter could not be more different. It also doesn’t hurt that the book just sold in a 7-figure publishing deal with Vintage and is spreading beyond the U.S.
Not surprisingly, I’ve heard that the studio chiefs who are most passionate about 50 Shades of Grey are women; Universal’s Donna Langley, Fox 2000’s Elizabeth Gabler and Sony’s Amy Pascal. The latter had her meeting with author and agent last week in New York, and while some say she was trying for a preemptive strike, she was in Gotham to attend the opening of Death of A Salesman, starring her Amazing Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield. Hoskins, best known for repping Confessions of a Shopaholic author Sophie Kinsella, is doing the film rights auction herself. Word is that’s because none of the major agencies were interested when she approached them before the book caught fire. It has gotten to the level where even those who quietly admit they aren’t that passionate are in the mix because who wants to miss out on the next Hunger Games, Twilight Saga or Harry Potter? Of course all three of those books sold movie rights at discount prices before they became sensations.
While buyers tell me there is no real predecessor to this unusual auction, it reminds me of one several years ago, when another zeitgeist book trilogy was shopped without a major agency. Detractors thought that its religious themes would be polarizing and that it was “Indiana Jones, except without the action.” That book was Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which grossed $758 million worldwide. Stay tuned.