You’ve probably heard the news, but just in case you haven’t, Fifty Shades of Grey – a film about people flogging each other, literally and figuratively – has just grossed over $266 million in a single weekend. This despite the film not being very good, and arguably romanticizing emotionally abusive relationships.
Despite its popularity, Fifty Shades of Grey has nevertheless become a pop culture punching bag. It’s considered “cool” to hate Fifty Shades of Grey, and thanks to the shoddy writing of the original novel and cheesy, stone-eyed performances of the film, it’s hard to argue the point. Even CraveOnline has written not one but two articles about Fifty Shades of Grey that posit that the film is A) terrible, and B) irresponsible. And we stand by those comments.
But whether you love Fifty Shades of Grey or think it’s just terrible, it’s important to remember that a lot of good can actually come of its blockbuster opening weekend… if Hollywood responds appropriately. The entertainment industry is an industry, first and foremost, and they are going to look at the staggering financial success of Fifty Shades and attempt to replicate what appears to be an excellent financial model: a $40 million romantic drama that made more money in a single weekend than Jupiter Ascending probably ever will.
And since Hollywood has an unfortunate tendency to learn the wrong lessons at the right time – even the success of Titanic told studios it was okay to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a single film, for example, and not that women were a driving force in the marketplace – we wanted to take this occasion to explain what the success of Fifty Shades of Grey really means.
Because there’s a damn good chance that Hollywood’s just going to fuck this up otherwise.
There is a Huge Audience for R-rated Movies
For many years now, PG-13 has been the law of the land. If you want to make a fortune on your movie, it has to be PG-13 (or so the so-called logic goes), because more people can see it. And while that may be true in the broadest strokes, it doesn’t mean that R-rated movies are financially inviable.
In fact, lately it’s the R-rated movies that seem to be making the most headlines. American Sniper has made almost $400 million worldwide (so far), and it’s an extremely violent war film intended for adults only. Fifty Shades of Grey, a film not only featuring explicit sexuality but dependent upon explicit sexuality for its marketing push, has made over half of American Sniper’s box office grosses in a single weekend.
While it helps that each of these films benefited from their own version of a zeitgeist – American Sniper arriving just in time to capitalize on the tidal wave of pro-American propaganda following the tragedy at Charlie Hebdo and Fifty Shades being an adaptation of a best-selling novel – apparently it also didn’t hurt that each of these films was R-rated.
There is an audience for R-rated movies that will go out to see them, provided they are films people actually want to see. Studios would be wise to look at the success of these movies as an indicator that an R-rating isn’t the box office curse that it supposedly used to be, which would in turn free those studios to make the kinds of movies they might have been terrified to touch a year ago.
There is a Huge Audience for Mature Movies
“R-rated” is not the same as “mature.” In fact, there are plenty of R-rated movies that are downright juvenile. Splatterhouse horror movies, raunchy comedies and over the top action films may bear a rating that says “adults only,” but their actual content frequently caters to adolescents… or at least immature adults. (Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with that.)
But Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t a film for children. It is a film about adults attempting to express their sexuality. It is a film about experiences that – although they may be portrayed in an inaccurate light – at the very least cater distinctly to experiences that are for mature audiences only. Not because they are the only audiences that can get into the theater, but because they are the only audiences who can relate (at least in a general way) to the story being told.
It may be difficult for younger audiences to understand this, but just because movies that cater to an adolescent mindset can be awesome (or even movies that attempt to cater to every mindset, including teens), it does not follow that all awesome movies must be aimed at young people. In fact, when you adjust for inflation, many of the most successful motion pictures ever made have been made about adults living through situations that are actually intended for mature audiences only.
With the success of films like Fifty Shades of Grey and American Sniper, the film industry may finally be able to revisit the era in which motion pictures like The Godfather, Doctor Zhivago, The Sting and The Graduate could be among the most successful movies of any given year, and even of all time.
Films that tackle subjects that adults can appreciate even more than kids can make a lot of money. So why not make more of them?
There is a Huge Audience for the Female Perspective
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t that it is a blockbuster motion picture about graphic sexuality, but that its graphic sexuality portrayed from the perspective of a woman.
Sexuality in cinema tends to be viewed from what we call “the male gaze,” in which the camera luxuriates more on the female form than the male form, and in which the fantasies of heterosexual males are the primary subject of the story. But in Fifty Shades, the sex scenes include many P.O.V. shots from the heroine’s perspective. The chest, buttocks and in one shot even the genitalia of the male lead is given the lavish cinematic treatment, while the nudity of the heroine – though certainly prevalent – is less the subject of ogling than it is relatively matter of fact.
In Fifty Shades of Grey, the man is treated more like a sexual object than the woman is, photographically at least. And while certain men in the audience may find the film less “sexy” as a result (certainly some of the men I’ve spoken to have described this phenomenon), that’s perfectly alright. Not every film needs to cater to heterosexual male desires. Women have sexual desires of their own, and now there is a blockbuster film that puts those desires in the foreground.
And while there certainly is a lot more to the female experience than just sexuality, the success of a film like Fifty Shades of Grey – which if nothing else subverts the pervasive paradigm that turns women into objects, instead of treating them as the subjects of the story – could go a long way towards changing the way we tell our stories.
It has just been proven that movies directed by women, told from a female perspective, and about the female emotional and social experience, can make enormous sums of money. Hopefully Hollywood will be less gun-shy about making more of them, and hopefully make even better ones as well.
Movies That Cost Less Than $100 Million Can Be Blockbusters
Remember when we pointed out that Titanic taught Hollywood that it was okay to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a single film? Well, Fifty Shades of Grey might help Hollywood do the opposite, and open a lot of doors in the process for filmmakers who don’t necessarily want to tell stories with giant robots in them.
The film industry has shifted away from mid-range movies into two uncomfortable extremes: movies that cost almost nothing to make, which are practically guaranteed to make their money back (see: Blumhouse horror movies), and giant tentpole releases that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, which are marketed out the wazoo and can be franchised like nobody’s business (see: The Avengers, Transformers, etc.).
But this robs filmmakers of the potential to make films that aren’t enormous action extravaganzas, yet still require a little more money to produce than an ambitious student film. Movies that cost $40 million – like Fifty Shades of Grey – have long been considered a poor investment for movie studios, who like to depend on guaranteed returns. For some reason, it has been accepted as an unwritten law that movies that cost around $20-40 million can’t make enough money to justify producing them in the first place.
And one need only look at the success of Fifty Shades of Grey to see that this economic philosophy is at best unnecessarily rigid, and at worst absolute nonsense. Movies that cost a modest amount of money can be as marketable as any other. You just have to actually bother marketing them, which is something that Universal did exceptionally well with Fifty Shades of Grey.
It doesn’t matter what a movie is about, necessarily, or even whether or not it’s any good… at least from a financial perspective. All that matters is whether audiences feel like they absolutely have to see it. Audiences had to see Fifty Shades of Grey because it was marketed not as an erotic drama, but as a phenomenon. Audiences had to see American Sniper because buying a ticket was transformed into an act of patriotism.
What we can learn from Fifty Shades of Grey is that any movie can be a success if it’s marketed well, and strikes the right chord. And that means studios have the freedom to make different, interesting and even better movies. Because it doesn’t matter what the rating is, what demographic it’s aimed at, whose perspective it caters to or even how much it costs. What matters is whether audiences want to watch it or not, and we now have proof that what audiences want to watch extends far beyond the very tiny box that studios have been operating inside of for decades.
We’re going to need a bigger box. Or better yet, we may finally be able to throw the box away.