How Universal roped men into seeing "Fifty Shades of Grey" and turned it into a blockbuster

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    LOS ANGELES — When Universal bumped "Fifty Shades of Grey" from August 2014 to Valentine's Day, 2015, it seemed like a cheesy gimmick. Now that box office results are in, it's clear that was the most brilliant stroke of all.

    The adaptation of author EL James' erotic novel debuted to an astounding $94.4 million domestic and $172 million international across the long President's Day weekend, breaking box office records for the month of February, female filmmakers and R-rated movies in what is proving to be a perfect storm of intrigue, brand, and crafty execution by Universal Pictures.

    "Fifty Shades of Grey" was always expected to be a fruitful endeavor — that's why nearly every studio in town clamored to scoop up the rights to James' phenomenally successful trilogy in 2012. When Focus Features and parent company Universal were the lucky winners, the hype only intensified as fans hungered for everything from casting rumors, to first photos of stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, and clues about what would make the final cut.

    But fans alone don't explain a blockbuster debut, especially when the entire Northeast was battling severe winter storms.

    Produced for a modest $40 million with no tested star-power in front of the camera, Universal and Focus were hedging their bets from the beginning, keeping costs reasonable and stoking the buzz machine with a coy marketing campaign playing on the interest of those who hadn't read the book.

    Not only did it spark a culture-wide dialogue, it became an event movie centered on a single date: Valentine's Day.

    "It follows in the tradition of the edgier, naughtier, so-called romance movies, and that paid off. Audiences like a good R-rated escape," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box office firm Rentrak, noting racy films like "Last Tango in Paris," ''9 ½ Weeks," and "Basic Instinct."

    "Fifty Shades of Grey" is poised to surpass all of them.

    "Certainly the fan base came out, but to reach these numbers, you have to go broader than the built-in audience," added Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com.

    The somewhat random fact that Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday in 2015 was key: it ensured that interest would stay high for at least the first two days of theatrical release.

    Day one would be for the die-hard fans. Day two would be for the couples.

    "That was a shrewd move," said Pandya. "This is the one weekend of the entire year where men will see a film that they do not want to see. The other 51 weeks of the year are a little different."

    Whereas most films with ardent fan bases drop off dramatically on day two, "Fifty Shades of Grey" grew. The first "Twilight" film fell 40.8 percent on its second day. "Fifty Shades" spiked 21 percent.

    Nick Carpou, Universal's President of Domestic distribution sees the film as a resounding victory on all levels. He credited the "careful choice" of a release date and an enticing marketing campaign that emphasized "qualities of the piece that are universally accepted," such as romance.

    "We overachieved in the South and the South Central and, interestingly, in the Northeast, which is weather challenged," said Carpou. "It's a very motivated audience base."

    An estimated 68 percent of opening weekend audiences was female (that number was even higher on Friday night), with 42 percent under the age of 25-years-old for the R-rated film. Racially, an estimated 52 percent were Caucasian, 22 percent Hispanic, 15 percent African American, and seven percent Asian.

    Still, moviegoers didn't seem to be thrilled with the results. According to market research firm CinemaScore, audiences gave the film a dismal C+ rating.

    "I'm expecting very large declines and rapid erosion in the days and weeks to come. This is one that is not going to have much stamina going forward," said Pandya.

    That said, Pandya does note that the way the movie is tracking internationally, it could ultimately make over $600 million worldwide.

    "It's going to be remarkably profitable and I'm sure they're getting the next film up and running," he said.

    Although director Sam Taylor-Johnson and Dornan have alluded to imminent sequels in interviews, Universal, who holds the rights to the trilogy, is staying mum on the topic. Any suggestions of planned shooting and release dates are just speculation at this point.

    As for what comes next for this franchise, Pandya thinks that "Twilight" is a good comparison for the future of "Fifty Shades of Grey" and not just because James' book started out as "Twilight" fan fiction. The second film in the popular vampire series doubled the first film's opening weekend.

    "Universal knows it has a franchise that is huge now, but can be made even bigger with future films if they play their cards right," he said.

    But copycats should take note: The success of "Fifty Shades of Grey" does not necessarily mean that S&M is going to be a fixture in mainstream cinemas going forward.

    "I don't think that this is going to open the floodgates to a lot more S&M movies. I think this worked not because it was some random S&M story. It was a popular book which happened to have this type of material," Pandya said. "This is a specific brand. It's one entity."

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