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I've stayed quiet about the whole "50 Shades of Grey" phenomenon, because it's one of those pieces of pop culture, like the "Twilight" series, that holds very little interest for me. I don't begrudge those who enjoy E.L. James's books, but I'm clearly not the target audience, so I've kept my distance. Now, however, the likelihood of a film adaptation has reared its head. Universal Pictures and Focus Features landed the rights, and have hired Kelly Marcel, who wrote the upcoming "Saving Mr. Banks" to script it. And then there's been the obnoxious rumors going around about potential actors who could play the leads. Poor Emma Watson has been hounded by claims that she's in contention to play Ana Steele, despite having denied it in multiple interviews. So you'd think that with all the hype, we're looking at a guaranteed box office winner here, right?

"50 Shades of Grey" is notorious for being the book that suddenly clued in the mainstream public that it's okay for women to consume erotica, and not just any erotica but a trashy BDSM novel that originated as "Twilight" fanfiction. The assumption is that these readers will also turn out in record numbers to watch the movie version, right? Well, if the movie is going to be at all faithful to the nature and spirit of its source material, we're looking at an R-rated film about a BDSM relationship with a lot of sex scenes. Since major studios are involved, they'll probably be able to avoid an NC-17 rating. Even with an R rating though, a "50 Shades" movie is going to be a hard sell. The only film with comparable content I can think of is 2002's R-rated "Secretary," which made about $5 million domestically on the art house circuit, got some good reviews, and then vanished without a trace. Then there was "Eyes Wide Shut," the final Stanley Kubrick film, which Warner Brothers censored to obtain an R-rating, a move that caused considerable controversy. Thanks to all the attention, it made a respectable $55 million, which would be closer to $75 million today. However, the increased scrutiny prompted theater owners to enforce the R-rating, and "Eyes Wide Shut" remains the only film where I was ever carded when buying my tickets.

American moviegoers have always had serious issues with onscreen depictions of sex, and in some ways we've gotten more conservative in the past few decades. The suggestion of sex is one thing - a few nipples here and there are practically mandatory - but real, graphic sex is taboo no matter the quality of the work or the context. The press made a fuss over the success of this summer's "Magic Mike," but I found it surprisingly chaste for its subject matter. There were a few bare breasts, but no full frontal nudity, and all phalluses were covered or out of focus. Mainstream films love to sell themselves as titillating, but they rarely deal with sex itself in any meaningful way. 1995's notorious "Showgirls" is the closest anyone has come to a mainstream film with adults-only content in recent memory. It made a little over $20 million, which made it a box office bomb at the time, and has since become something of a cult film. And yet it remains the highest grossing NC-17 rated film in the U.S. after seventeen years. As a culture, we are a long, long way from the days when "Last Tango in Paris" could be both a major critical and commercial hit, in spite of an X rating and vigorous censorship challenges.

But "50 Shades of Grey" reflects a more liberated, curious audience, doesn't it? These women enjoy their naughty books and don't care who knows it, right? I wouldn't count on that. Dirty books where you have to imagine all the shocking bits are one thing, but it's quite another to see sadomasochistic sex acts depicted on the big screen. Women have always preferred written smut to video pornography, so I don't think there's going to be nearly the kind of crossover audience that the "Twilight" adaptations had. In addition, movies tend to be bigger attention grabbers, and the existence of a "50 Shades" film is going to bring the same kind of scrutiny and controversy that surrounded the book, but multiplied by several times. A big problem is that the book has been widely derided as exploitative trash, so unless the studios get some bigger, more prestigious names involved to inject some respectability into the project, they're going to be be trying to sell a movie with the same reputation. The stigma may be lessened somewhat by the perceived popularity of the series, but it's still going to be a factor, and I expect it is going to keep a good chunk of the potential audience away. And because major films with this kind of subject matter are so rare, I wouldn't be surprised if it gets the "Eyes Wide Shut" treatment, and theaters take extra precautions to keep curious kids out. That'll cut into ticket sales too.

A "50 Shades of Grey" movie could be a game changer. However, it could also just as easily be another train wreck in the same vein as "Showgirls." I have to admire Universal and Focus for having the guts to try and get this movie made, but boy do they have their work cut out for them. Movies for grown-ups, as more than one critic has noted, have been disappearing from the theaters, retreating to the art houses and VOD, where returns are far more modest. Anything R-rated is getting harder and harder to greenlight at the major studios. After all, it would be easier to just cut out the sex, make the characters into vampires, and sell "50 Shades" to the teenagers as a "Twilight" spinoff - which isn't that far from the truth anyway.


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May 2014

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