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After Bidding War, 'Fifty Shades of Grey' Goes to Universal/Focus; Author Keeps Control of S&M Erotica Trilogy for Women

Thompson on Hollywood By Anne Thompson & Sophia Savage | Thompson on Hollywood March 26, 2012 at 1:42PM

Hollywood is cautious when it comes to sex in cinema. The studios are more comfortable with raunchy sex comedies from the likes of Judd Apatow and the "American Pie" series ("American Reunion" is coming up) than anything sexy and intimate. Erotica aimed at men or women is a tricky area.
Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, Hunger

Hollywood is cautious when it comes to sex in cinema. The studios are more comfortable with raunchy sex comedies from the likes of Judd Apatow and the "American Pie" series ("American Reunion" is coming up) than anything sexy and intimate. Erotica aimed at men or women is a tricky area. Look at "Striptease" or "Showgirls," both notorious flops. But the studios are also respectful of any property that has built huge advance buzz --it means there may be an audience.

After a heated bidding war that was widely tracked by folks in Hollywood, feature film rights to "Fifty Shades of Grey" have gone for about $5 million to Universal and Focus. Sony reportedly offered $5 million; New Regency was also in the hunt after HBO initially passed in January.

"Fifty Shades of Grey" was written by Brit ex-TV exec E. L. James (a pseudonyn) after she was inspired by "Twilight" characters Edward and Bella. First the story appeared online as fan fiction, then as an e-book (topping both New York Times and Amazon lists) and a limited print run overseas. It will soon be published as a book trilogy (follow ups are "Fifty Shades of Darker" and "Fifty Shades Freed") in the US through Random House/Vintage Books. UPDATE: James tells EW why she picked Focus: they were more comfortable with "difficult" material, she says, and she bonded with production chief Jeb Brody, who made her laugh.

You'd think that this success makes the trilogy a potential cash cow. But what works as erotic fiction for women and finding the right tone for an on-screen version are very different challenges. Both Young Adult franchises "Twilight" and "Hunger Games" are virtually sexless. In most North American movie theaters, sex is taboo, and violence is not. With S&M and graphic sexual content crucial to this story, film adaptations will not be able to chase the younger "Twilight" and "Hunger Games" demo. They'll be targeting their moms.

In "Grey," Anastasia Steele is the heroine, a soon-to-be college graduate who begins an S&M romance with a successful entrepreneur named Christian Grey. On James' website, she refers to her novels as Adult Romance. Her synopsis for "Fifty Shades of Grey" is below. It makes "A Dangerous Method" sound tame.

The terms laid down during the bidding war by James and her agent, Valerie Hoskins, expressed just how confident they are in the material's value. According to THR, they have approval of director, writer, cast, locations, screenplay, marketing materials, trailers and so on. One bidder told THR, "it's a love story" and "definitely female-oriented." If that's the case, approval of screenplay and director are a wise safeguard against Hollywood's instinct to broaden the potential market to males; the creative team seek to protect that all-too rare female voice. They got all the controls they wanted--because they were willing to walk away if they didn't. But finding the right filmmaking partners to make this work on screen, where reality is complex: that's a tall order.

Here are more details from James' website:

When literature student Anastasia Steele is drafted to interview the successful young entrepreneur Christian Grey for her campus magazine, she finds him attractive, enigmatic and intimidating.  Convinced their meeting went badly, she tries to put Grey out of her mind - until he happens to turn up at the out-of-town hardware store where she works part-time.

The unworldly, innocent Ana is shocked to realize she wants this man, and when he warns her to keep her distance it only makes her more desperate to get close to him.  Unable to resist Ana’s quiet beauty, wit, and independent spirit, Grey admits he wants her too - but on his own terms.
Shocked yet thrilled by Grey's singular erotic tastes, Ana hesitates. For all the trappings of success – his multinational businesses, his vast wealth, his loving adoptive family – Grey is a man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control. When the couple embarks on a passionate, physical and daring affair, Ana learns more about her own dark desires, as well as the Christian Grey hidden away from public scrutiny.

Can their relationship transcend physical passion? Will Ana find it in herself to submit to the self-indulgent Master?  And if she does, will she still love what she finds?

This article is related to: In The Works, IN THE WORKS, News, News, Genres, Women in Film, Universal/Focus Features

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.