While a spot-on release and marketing strategy led to impressive performance this past weekend, the success of Universal’s 50 Shades of Gray movie should not be taken as a sign that sex suddenly sells at the multiplex.
In recent years, the economics of the movie business have led studios and exhibitors to shy away from erotic films, simply because their more restricted audience (17+) limits the total number of ticket sales. However, the success of 50 Shades of Gray had led some experts to speculate that this could change.
In case you just emerged from your own Red Room of sorts, the film brought in $85M over the three day weekend. The only other February release to come close is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which delivered around $84M. At first blush, it seems the two films couldn’t have less in common (other than a bit of bondage). But that’s not true. Both were highly controversial, received mixed reviews, polarized audiences and aroused considerable curiosity.
I would offer that 50 Shades has even more going for it. The book was bona fide pop culture phenomenon; think Twilight or Harry Potter, but with S&M. That made women feel okay about wanting to see the movie, giving Universal permission to market it to the mainstream. And it was genius to release it just in time for Valentine’s Day, when ladies exert way more sway over the selection of a Saturday night date film. But whether the movie’s legs will be as terrific as its heroine’s remains to be seen, particularly given that the guys who got dragged there didn’t seem to love it (average audience score of only 50% on Rotten Tomatoes). Given that the social zeitgeist, not the salacious story, filled seats at the theater, it’s risqué to try to replicate the success of this film. Just ask the makers of last year’s Exodus. Bottom line: bet on movies that show potential to spark very strong and reasonably broad interest for whatever reason, and then market them brilliantly.