24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Novels

'50 Shades of Grey' has studios hot and bothered

March 20, 2012 |  5:09 pm

'50 Shades of Grey'

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

Jess Walter's 'The Zero' looks to make the math work

May 27, 2010 |  1:22 pm

EXCLUSIVE: It's never easy to turn an elliptical novel, no matter how funny, popular or well done, into watchable cinema (or a movie at all -- just ask the many who've tried to make "A Confederacy of Dunces").

ZerBut there's new traction for "The Zero," the surrealist post-9/11 satire from the cult novelist Jess Walter.

The start-up financier-producer LLeju Productions, which was behind the recently released Liam Neeson supernatural thriller "After.Life," has picked up "The Zero" in turnaround from Warner Bros., and the company is serious about making the movie. Principal Bill Perkins told us in Cannes that he was set to get the new draft from writer Brandon Boyce (who also wrote the war-criminal melodrama "Apt Pupil" for Bryan Singer), and if all looked good on the script, LLeju was to put the movie into production later this year. Derrick Borte, who's coming off another contemporary satire in "The Joneses," is set to direct. (Speaking of Cannes, apologies for the light posting over the last few days as we made our way back from said festival.)

"The Zero" is about a policeman named Brian Remy who, suffering from head trauma in the wake of 9/11, leads tours of ground zero while also beginning a Kafkaesque search for a mysterious character named March Selios. Sept. 11 is never mentioned specifically, but it's clear what Walter is referencing, and in addition to a general tone of subversive and oddball wit, Walter's book weighs in with some sly commentary about the marketing of tragedy.

It's not just Walter's online fan base that took to the novel, either -- the National Book Awards nominated it for its fiction prize back in 2006.

Of course, since so much of the novel's strength depends on tone, and the story is interior and intentionally disorienting, "The Zero" isn't the easiest script to crack. Boyce juggled some dark elements nicely in "Apt Pupil," but when a story and comedy are conceptual, not situational, it's not easy for any writer to pull off, at least any writer not named Charlie Kaufman.

Perkins, who made his fortune as an energy trader, has the financing to get this going right away. He gives the sense of someone who just wants to get some movies made without worrying too much about where every dollar is going. His basic goal was to break even, he said -- he'd already made his millions, so he' wasn't looking to make more in the movie business. That attitude could be a big help when deciding whether to put down the coin for a film based on a Jess Walter novel. Now it's just a matter of making a good movie.

-- Steven Zeitchik


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