I’m in a coffee shop in the middle of London, and I keep overhearing the same two words murmured at neighbouring tables or from passers-by: Fifty Shades. I look at my phone, and Fifty Shades is trending on Twitter.
A bus has just gone past in the pouring February rain, and there’s Fifty Shades Of Grey on the side: Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson in a clinch, lips parted, her arms raised above her head. It’s an image just sexy enough to advertise the film’s erotic promise, but not so filthy as to cause alarm: presumably, the handcuffs and nipple clamps are all just out of shot.
Meanwhile, a news story’s doing the rounds about a man glassed by a drunken woman in a Glasgow movie theater. “Besides being the worst film I have ever seen,” an eyewitness later said, “three women were getting arrested and put in a police van when we arrived.”
Fifty Shades is the very definition of an event movie. It may not have cost as much to make as Avengers: Age Of Ultron, but among fans of the book, it’s been the subject of similarly breathless anticipation – that much is clear from its opening weekend. Hauling in a global take of $265 million, it’s now one of the biggest R-rated films of all time.
Fifty Shades is the kind of phenomenon which can shrug off even the most stinging barbs of its critics, because reviews don’t matter. Fifty Shades has become part of the pop culture zeitgeist; if you don’t go and see it, you can’t be part of the discussion. So what if it’s bad? If you haven’t seen it, you can’t laugh about it with friends afterwards over a good stiff drink.
Those uninterested in saucy romance, on the other hand, will no doubt be mystified by all the fuss. Why is everybody getting so worked up over an erotic drama?
Whatever state Fifty Shades Of Grey leaves you in, its box-office splash has already led to speculation that the coming months and years will see a wave of erotic movies appear in cinemas, all keen to tap into the same audience. History seems to bear this out: the success of films like Deep Throat and Last Tango In Paris ushered in a wave of similarly explicit cinema in the 1970s, as did Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct in the ’80s and early ’90s.
You don’t necessarily have to be interested in erotica to get the benefit from the clamour surrounding Fifty Shades, however.
Costing a relatively lean $40 million to make, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film is something of an anomaly in the current movie-making landscape – it’s neither a colossal effects-heavy tentpole nor a low-budget, sub-$10 million indie flick.
Increasingly, studios have backed either massive four-quadrant films like Godzilla or Avengers, or low-budget passion projects like Nightcrawler or Whiplash. As a result, the stuff in between these two poles – the mid-budget movies that once made a ripple at the cinema and then clawed back more money on DVD – has ebbed away into almost non-existence. At best, we get R-rated comedies like Hot Tub Time Machine, which don’t cost too much but provoke plenty of interest at the box-office – bawdy laughs, it seems, are a safe bet in today’s climate.
What’s more, Fifty Shades proves that adults will still turn out in significant numbers for an R-rated picture. And while this is undoubtedly due to the phenomenal success of the book, it’s by no means the only R-rated movie to draw the crowds in recent months.
Released on the same weekend in America, Matthew Vaughn’s violent action caper Kingsman: The Secret Service held its own against its kinky rival, raking in a reported $35.6 million in the US. This all went into a global take approaching $80 million, which is a good result for a film with a budget far below Hollywood’s typical mainstream fare.
Elsewhere, we’ve seen the decidedly adult thriller Gone Girl make more than six times its $60 million budget at the box office, while Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper did similar business, with a ticket sales amounting to around $392 million.
Dan Gilroy’s spectacular drama-thriller Nightcrawler was a far more modest hit by contrast, making $38.7 million worldwide according to Box Office Mojo. But consider this: its budget was a tiny $8.5 million, which means it more than tripled its investment. Had this been a superhero movie or even a horror film, that ratio would probably have prompted talk of a sequel.
The best thing about all these films? Each is wildly different from the other. They run the gamut from thrillers to dramas to biopics to, yes, steamy bondage epics. It’s the kind of diversity that may also, we hope, coax Hollywood and filmmakers elsewhere to rethink their preconceptions about their perceived audience.
Last year, Universal managed to make a healthy profit, even without the benefit of massive holiday season films on its 2014 slate. Instead of major sequels like Jurassic World or Fast & Furious 7 (which are sure to make lots of money this year) it profited from smaller films like Non-Stop, Lucy, and Neighbors. Two of those films were also rated R.
To put it into a different context: imagine for a moment that Fox saw all this and came to the conclusion that, if it kept its budget below $100 million, it could make its Deadpool movie an R – a possibility we floated the other day. Or imagine that Marvel decided to do a similar thing some of its Max comic properties, from familiar names like Blade and The Punisher to, say, Wisdom.
If a film based on a cult comic like The Secret Service can be a hit, here’s no reason why Marvel can’t add some more adult movies to its cinematic universe, too.
Whether you’re into buttocks and bondage down your local multiplex or not, diversity’s undoubtedly a good thing for cinema as a whole.