'Fifty Shades of Grey' aims for the movies
The principals behind “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the erotic ebook that has become a literary sensation, have sold film rights to the novel and its two sequels to Universal Pictures and its Focus Features division. The sale means that one of the most buzzed-about books in years will become a film -- although with no writer, director, cast or production timetable in place, it could be several years before the movie hits multiplexes, if at all.
Centering on an S&M-heavy relationship between chaste recent college graduate Anastasia Steele and a 27-year-old billionaire named Christian Grey, E.L. James' “Fifty Shades” has become a New York Times bestseller exclusively on electronic book platforms, with the books being read and discussed among various circles of women, many of them mothers. (Paperback copies for what is dubbed “mommy porn” hit stores next month via Random House’s Vintage Books.)
Universal's Donna Langley and Adam Fogelson called the trilogy a "one-of-a-kind series of stories," while Focus Features' James Schamus called it "a romance of the most emotionally resonant, but delicate, order." Deal terms were not disclosed, though numbers as high as several million dollars have been reported.
James and her agent Valerie Hoskins had kickstarted a frenzy among Hollywood studios several weeks ago, with Paramount Pictures going so far as to create a video featuring female employees explaining what the book meant to them, while a Fox 2000 producer flew to London to make her pitch. Universal, which outmaneuvered more than half a dozen studios to land the racy property, gave its initial pitch last Monday.
While the Universal/Focus team was not considered a front-runner as the race unfolded, the company offered the scale of a studio and the nurturing more common at a specialty division. Focus also has a history of handling sexually provocative material, releasing the Chinese wartime romance “Lust, Caution” and the gay western “Brokeback Mountain.” (James intends to be involved with many aspects of the production, said one person familiar with the pitch who was not authorized to talk about it publicly.)
Executives who pursued the book described a story that tapped into the forbidden romance of “Twilight” and recalled the explicit sex scenes of “9½ Weeks,” the Mickey Rourke-Kim Basinger 1980s erotic drama. But it was hard to ignore the effect that the outsize box office this weekend for “The Hunger Games,” another female-oriented book franchise, had on the sales mania.
And though the “Grey” female audience is older than "Twilight’s" core demographic, studio executives think the books play on the same virtues: a chaste young woman, a slightly dangerous man and a forbidden romance. (Indeed, the book originated as “Twilight” fan fiction.)
Still, although no executive wants to be held accountable for missing out on a literary phenomenon -- when it first went out, “The Hunger Games” generated interest from only a handful of studios, while Paramount opted not to turn “Twilight” into a film, to its ultimate chagrin -- it's unclear that "50 Shades of Grey" will have the same broad appeal as those hits. It’s unclear, for instance, whether producers can eliminate some of the book’s racier scenes to land an R rating without diluting the essence of the novels, as well as whether individual readers will want to share a private, guilty pleasure in the communal setting of a movie theater.
With the book and its sequels, “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed,” now sold to Hollywood, the online guessing game will begin over who will play Steele. Already, the names Shailene Woodley and Dakota Fanning have surfaced; expect a lot more to get bandied around in the coming months.
--Steven Zeitchik and Nicole Sperling
Photo: "Fifty Shades of Grey." Credit: Vintage Books