EXCLUSIVE: James Foley has emerged as the clear frontrunner to direct Fifty Shades Darker, the sequel to Universal’s saucy blockbuster. There is speculation that he might well direct Fifty Shades Freed, the third installment of the E.L. James novel trilogy, but that is still yet to be worked out on whether the studio goes for a back-to-back climax of the series. Scripts have been written by Niall Leonard, the novelist and screenwriter who is the husband of the trilogy’s author. Dakota Johnson will be back as Anastasia Steele, and Jamie Dornan is reprising as the title character Christian Grey. Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti are producing with James.

james foleyNegotiations haven’t begun yet, but I hear that the studio will start them soon with Foley to replace Sam Taylor Johnson. She helmed the first film but bristled over the creative controls James held as part of the original deal struck by Donna Langley when she won the franchise over several other studios. The first film, which cost $40 million to make, grossed $569 million worldwide after bowing Valentine’s Day weekend. It set the tone for what has become a dizzying array of global hits for Universal this year, and the sequel is one of the biggest pieces of business the studio has.

fifty shades darkerFoley, who was among a small group of filmmakers in contention–Electrick Children‘s Rebecca Thomas, Mark Pellington and Hysteria‘s Tanya Wexler were others the studio liked–is an intriguing choice. He has a long track record in features and is known for getting strong actor performances that included Mark Wahlberg’s breakout in Fear, Glengarry Glen Ross, At Close Range and numerous others. He has had films along the way that didn’t work, but his career has gotten a second wind thanks to the dozen episodes he has directed of Netfix’s House Of Cards (which Brunetti produces), and other series including Hannibal and Wayward Pines. Because Foley has a proven track record for getting performances out of his casts, he seems a good choice here. Both Johnson and Dornan are relative newcomers playing roles that are far from easy. As their characters further peel back the layers of Christian Grey’s broken psyche that prevents him from committing to a loving relationship and instead leads him to an S&M lifestyle, Foley should be an asset to both.

Fifty Shades of GreyInsiders said Universal hasn’t committed to shooting the films back to back, at least not yet. It seems a good idea not just for the economics, but also for keeping the cast in a groove to complete the series. You never know, the studio could go the way of publishing phenomenon-driven series like Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, and stretch the tale over three movies. But for right now, Fifty Shades Darker is set for release on February 10, 2017 and Fifty Shades Freed will bow February 9, 2018. I expect Foley to consummate a deal shortly.

Foley is repped by UTA.