There is no doubt that films aimed squarely at women is an underserved market. Every year there is a title or two that does solid business (think “Julie & Julia,” “Eat Pray Love,” “The Help“) that makes Hollywood act surprised that if you give that demographic quality product, they’ll turn out to see it. And so, it’s not really much of shock that one of the hottest books of the year for women started a studio bidding war.
In case you’ve missed the headlines in recent weeks, “Fifty Shades Of Grey” has been tearing up the best selling charts. Penned by E.L. James, the book is a “Twilight” inspired erotic novel (we’re not kidding) — the first in a trilogy — about a BDSM relationship between a wealthy Seattle businessman and a virginal young college student. Initially published as a print-on-demand and e-book title from the small Australian publisher The Writers’ Coffee Shop, the book shot up the Amazon best seller list, and the author was quickly courted by major book publishers, with Vintage Books set to republish the title next month. And of course, Hollywood came calling with Deadline reporting today that Universal and Focus Features emerged from a hot and heavy bidding war with the movie rights in a deal said to be in the neighborhood of $3 million dollars. But was this a smart buy?
Racy bodice rippers have always been popular with women over 25, but the success and novelty of “Fifty Shades Of Grey” is that it throws in the “taboo” kink of BDSM into the formula. And while this is likely a lot of fun for Moms to talk about amongst their friends, or see discussed in racy soundbites on various talkshows, the question is whether or not that means that moviegoing public in general will line up at the multiplex to sit with strangers to see their kinks on the big screen. To put this in perspective: the amount paid by Universal and Focus is said to be roughly the same Sony shelled out for “The Da Vinci Code.”
Movies about sexual taboos and kinks have had a mixed record on the big screen at best. For the most part, even star studded films have been duds for the most part, not only in terms just being poor or unsuccesful movies, but often reducing edgy sexual play to tired stereotypes. Look no further than fare like “Body Of Evidence,” “Color Of Night,” “Sade,” or “Bitter Moon.” Or let’s look at one of the few solid films to tackle BDSM head on, Steven Shainberg‘s “Secretary” starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. A smart and thoughtful film on the subject that managed a total worldwide box office of $9 million.
That said, “Fifty Shades Of Grey” is a studio picture, and obviously has a much bigger head start being based on best selling book, but there is a bumpy road ahead. In a very rare move, James has approval over casting, director and script with lots of talk that they will “get this right” instead of rushing it into theaters, but you can bet Universal and Focus didn’t just pay $3 million to sit on this. But here’s the thing — writing a book and moviemaking are two entirely different things and can the taste of James really be trusted when “Twilight” was used as the template for her own books? We’re not talking about a literary master here — this is someone who essentially wrote a best-selling piece of fan fiction.
It will be interesting to see if the Mommy set can power “Fifty Shades Of Grey” into the kind of four quadrant box office hit Universal is paying the kind of money for, but we’re skeptical. It’s one thing to talk and share your kinks with your partner and friends, and a whole other thing to see it projected on the big screen. And considering all kinds BDSM material is available already with a few mouse clicks, will a large audience be compelled enough to see Hollywood do it within the realm of an R-rating? Guess we’ll soon see. What do you think?