A romantic movie about BDSM opens with a weekend of $81.7M (and a four-day holiday estimate of $91.7M)? That’s jarring, and it wasn’t guys in raincoats taking it all in. Instead, it was the armies of female fans who made E.L. James’ novel a publishing phenomenon.
One set of exit polls suggested that moviegoers took Fifty Shades of Grey for the type of kinky movie that it is. Other polls indicated that most people (48%) actually turned up for the story (like reading Playboy for the articles?), followed by the film’s sexiness and lastly, for its romance, which plays into the film’s release timed to Valentine’s Day weekend.
So, are kinky erotic dramas here to stay at the box office, particularly titles getting a major studio launch?
Many distributors that Deadline spoke with this weekend said they believe Fifty Shades isn’t a breakthrough for the genre. Instead, it’s just another example of female-driven fare that can translate to big box office, particularly when it’s backed by a best-selling novel or series, such as Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Divergent.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, Hollywood wasn’t making movies for females like we’re seeing now with Sex and the City and Magic Mike, which are group activities for the demographic,” observed one studio executive.
“Wait for the entire trilogy of Fifty Shades of Grey to be released,” said a studio marketing consultant. “If that works in its entirety, then I can see more of these films coming down the production pipeline. But for now, no, they aren’t.”
On Friday, Fifty Shades was a girl’s night out, with an 82% female audience. Saturday night, Valentine’s night, shifted into date night with women representing a still substantial 68% of the crowd.
Some observers predicted that Fifty Shades’ B.O. would be front-loaded and drop off quickly, as often is the case for films adapted from best-selling books. Universal’s shrewd business decision to move Fifty Shades from its Aug. 1 release date to this weekend’s Valentine’s Day frame paid off, however, as Friday-to-Saturday grosses jumped up 21 percent, from $30.3M to $36.7M.
Distribution chiefs have praised Universal for their success with this type of film. With a production cost of $40M, Fifty Shades of Grey is looking at a global weekend haul by Monday of close to $250M –what many insiders are calling a stunning and unusual achievement. Most profitable pictures don’t hit break-even until their home-entertainment window or later. Fifty Shades of Grey will have recouped its negative cost plus distribution expenses within seven days of theatrical release, and is already in profit, said knowledgeable insiders.
“This is about a book phenomenon with a built-in audience,” another distribution executive said, dismissing whether kink will be coming to the cineplex regularly in the future.
In years past, sex-driven studio dramas like the first NC-17 1990 film Henry & June ($11.6M) and 1988’s Unbearable Lightness of Being ($10M) didn’t send shockwaves through the multiplex. 9 ½ Weeks success was more cult-driven.
There were a couple of star-driven sex dramas that worked, i.e. the Demi Moore-Robert Redford 1993 Indecent Proposal ($106.6M) and the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman 1999 Eyes Wide Shut ($55.7M), both of which opened at No. 1 in their day.
But even those titles come with asterisks. Indecent Proposal’ popularity was driven by its stars, and the entire story wasn’t defined by sex like Fifty Shades of Grey. Eyes Wide Shut stateside grossed under its $65M budget and never forced its way into the cultural vernacular like Fifty Shades. Given the huge buzz around the film and its topic, talk and news shows analyzed BDSM culture throughout the weekend. A Rolling Stone reporter even sat down with dominatrix Cheyenne Picardo to deconstruct the film’s accuracies.
One of the film’s producers, Dana Brunetti, said that James’ book “gave women the ability to talk about their sensuality in a way that they didn’t need to be bashful or shy about it. It empowered a lot of women and the phenomenon gave them the ability to do it.”
The topic of BDSM “is a more accepted idea than it was prior to the book’s release,” adds the producer.
Unlike like last weekend’s $200M-plus mess Jupiter Ascending, where the Wachowskis went wild off a greenlight treatment, Fifty Shades’ production was tightly coordinated with Universal, ensuring the adaptation would work on a mass level.
First, Universal enlisted author E.L. James a collaborator, naming her a producer, giving her a voting say of what went on the screen, and relying on her to help entice her 100 million fans into theaters.
James’ agent Valerie Hoskins told Mike Fleming back in March 2012 that the bidding war for Fifty Shades wasn’t an auction, in fact Universal is said to have bid lower than the lofty $5M offers from other studios. What Universal did offer, in addition to an estimated $4M, was a promise that Fifty Shades would be handled with care.
“The goal was to protect the material and its manifestations into movies,” Hoskins said then. “To make sure that, as E.L. said, she would be all over it like a rash. It is very sensitive material. It could become sleazy, it could become cheesy, it could end up looking like porn. It needs to be classy, sexy rather than full of sex.”
And classy was key. While fans said the book has some BDSM moments that would have led to an NC-17 rating, Universal always sought to keep Fifty Shades at an R, so a majority of fans could see the film. There were never any fights with the MPAA over what was permissible. Crotch shots were discreetly handled.
Similar to an event film like Hunger Games, Universal started banging the drum for Fifty Shades a year ahead of launch with billboards in five cities. Print materials, again similar to Hunger Games, incorporated quotes from the book in its advertising materials (“Mr. Grey Will See You Now”), and executed a sleek, cosmopolitan promo campaign in print, online, social media and trailers. The studio sought to move the film beyond its core fan base, using music from pop icons such as Beyonce and Ellie Goulding on the soundtrack and in slinky trailers.
Universal never tested the film, in part given its nature and in part to control story leaks. There were reports that James, as producer, and director Sam-Taylor Johnson came to blows over the ending but Brunetti says that “like any film I’ve ever worked on, the (decision-making) doesn’t come down to one person. Everyone weighs in, and if someone doesn’t agree, we hear it out and make decisions off that.”
Fifty Shades’ Cinemascore of C+ has led some to question whether the film will sustain its success Stateside, especially given that some fans are almost certain to quibble with the book’s translation to the big screen. Not every fan of the book can be pleased.
Others said Fifty Shades isn’t a story with a big twist that would trigger traffic at the box office. For those who want to be part of the conversation, this is the weekend to see the film. And then there’s the historic drop-off for popular femme-fueled films like Twilight and Sex and the City. They both posted 62% second-weekend drops, while Magic Mike dropped 60% in its sophomore frame.
However, with the film already figured to be in the black by this week, there’s no need for anyone to throw shade on Fifty Shades. It’s all gravy now.