Hollywood's top studios are rolling out the red carpet for little-known British author named E.L. James, the woman behind an overnight literary phenomenon titled "50 Shades of Grey."
The first in the trilogy of erotic e-books about a virginal recent college graduate and her lurid relationship with a billionaire in his late 20s, James' "Grey" has become a sensation among female readers. Now the studios are eager to capitalize on the popularity of the novel, hoping to retell the story on the big screen.
Over the last few days, top executives from Warner Bros., Sony Pictures, Fox 2000, Universal and Paramount have -- or will -- deliver presentations, some of them highly elaborate, to convince James and her literary agent Valerie Hoskins that they are the best candidates to transform the popular material into a movie. (The three books are being sold as a package and would be developed as a potential franchise by the winning bidder.)
One person familiar with the pitch who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of negotiations told 24 Frames that, to convince James and Hoskins to go with them, Paramount Pictures executives put together a video featuring female executives reacting positively to the novels. (In an odd turn, Adam Goodman, president of the studio's film group, is bidding on the project against his wife, Jessica Goodman, who serves as executive vice president of Fox 2000 under Elizabeth Gabler.)
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. president of production Greg Silverman decided to go after the rights after the female executives at the company were espousing the book's steamy virtues, in addition to the personal endorsements he received from his wife and mother-in-law.
Universal Pictures Donna Langley and production exec Tracy Falco gave their pitch Monday, along with Sony's Amy Pascal. [Update, 5:32 pm, Tuesday: The majority of the studios already met with the author and her agent. Individual producers are scheduled to meet with the sellers later in the week. Red Wagon, Imagine Entertainment, Scott Stuber Productions and Adam Shankman’s Offspring Entertainment are among the contenders to land the property. A person familiar with negotiations said bids from all interested parties will be accepted by the sellers on Friday.]
The studios think the racy material can be turned into a movie a la “9 1/2 Weeks,” the sexy Mickey Rourke-Kim Basinger film from the 1980s that slowly grew into a home-video and international phenomenon. Others argue that this novel is actually a "female empowerment story" where a young woman is awakened sexually by the unconventional methods of her older, controlling lover.
James, a TV executive and mother of two, developed the “Grey” books from fan fiction she wrote online in tribute to Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" novels. The first “Grey” book has hit the New York Times bestseller list despite the dearth of physical copies in the marketplace. (A small Australian publisher first printed a small run of copies and Vintage Books, the division of Random House, will release all three titles in paperback April 17.)
The books are being read and discussed among circles of women, many of them mothers, around the country, including those who normally read more, er, upscale fiction. (The "Grey" books have been branded by some as “Mommy porn.”) Writing on Amazon, even a reader who identified himself as an older male noted the titillation factor. "My arthritis flared up just reading about [the female character's] sexual gymnastics," he wrote.
Though the “Grey” female audience is older than "Twilight’s" core demographic, studio executives think the books play on the same virtues: a young virginal woman, a slightly dangerous man and a forbidden romance.
While no executive wants to be held accountable for missing out on a literary phenomenon, it's unclear that "50 Shades of Grey" will have the same broad appeal as the “Twilight” films. At the story’s center is Christian Grey, the manipulative male lead, whose damaged sexual upbringing prompts him to engage in relationships exclusively with women who agree to become his submissive. (He asks his partners to sign an exhaustive contract before engaging in any sexual activity with them.) Naive college grad Anastasia Steele is conflicted about joining Grey in his world, and struggles with his rigid rules and sometime abusive behavior.
Several readers of the book say that its appeal lies in the fact that one can read it on devices like the Kindle or iPad without anyone else knowing what they're reading; whether that will play in a public setting like a movie theater is an open question. Also unclear is whether producers can eliminate some of the book’s racier sex scenes to land an R rating without diluting the essence of the novels.
One studio executive said that, as a result, the budget was being scaled down: The movie would cost between $35 and $40 million, more along the lines of the first “Twilight” film and considerably lower than the franchise’s recent sequels.
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-- Nicole Sperling and Steven Zeitchik