Saturday, October 19, 2013

My Inner Producer is Facepalming - Can the 50 Shades Movie Succeed?

A Joint Post by Ceilidh & Christina.

Ceilidh: I was in the middle of recording a podcast when I found out Charlie Hunnam had dropped out of playing the role of Christian Grey in the much discussed "Fifty Shades of Grey" movie, and I would be lying if I said I didn't laugh. The jokes wrote themselves - he pulled out early, unlike Christian Grey, he freed himself from the chains of his contract, and so on. The official reason given for the actor's beautifully dodged career killing bullet is scheduling conflicts with his show, "Sons of Anarchy", but we can all safely assume that's a lie. Come on, that issue would have been dealt with when the deal was sorted out in the first place. The speculation has gone from the plausible - cold feet, worries over the script (which is now receiving a little doctoring from Patrick Marber, a man of genuine talent), worries over overtly eager fans - to the hilarious - late night pleading phone calls from Robert Pattinson. At the centre of this story has been one glaring topic that's become more and more of an issue:

Can this movie actually be a success? 

Christina: Before you say "yes, of course", consider the bombing of "Twilight" knock-offs, most recently "City of Bones". Audiences tire of formulas and pithy plots, and of course 50 Shades itself was derived from Twilight fanfiction. There's no denying the fact that there's no real story to be found here, which explains the early rumors that the movie version of 50 Shades would be an actual porno. Screenwriters who were courted to craft an actual story didn't make it a secret that the book (and the series) is rather lacking in plot.
 
So what do we have? Well, it's the "Fifty Shades Phenomenon". The marketing is unreal; parties, lingerie, toys, onesies for babies (don't get me started on that), you name it. It's basically all about what makes money, and of course studios are assuming that audiences will make this a hit at the box office.
 
What they seem to be forgetting is the increasingly strong backlash against 50 Shades. For those who cite it as anti-feminist, or romanticizing rape, there are those who also recognize the unbearably terrible writing. Plus there is the inevitable 50 Shades fatigue, if it's not happening already. Witness the "campaigns" from fans to keep beloved stars from signing on to this project. "Supernatural" fans have literally begged Jared Padelecki and Jensen Ackles not to portray Christian Grey on the big screen, and Emma Watson assured her Twitter followers (over ten million and counting) that she has no interest in playing Anastasia Steele. Her tweet denouncing the movie got over fifty thousand retweets.
 
In fact, the lineup of stars who have either turned down the movie or expressed outright disinterest (or disgust) at playing either of the top roles is a who's who of A listersUsually when a movie is being buzzed about, actors are duking it out to win the prized parts. Here it's like they're trying to dodge bullets. It's very telling.

Ceilidh: I think many actors, understandably so, fear the possibility of a "Showgirls" style backlash. Actually, the most accurate comparison to make here would be with the film adaptation of "Exit to Eden". There you have an Anne Rice erotica turned into a buddy cop movie with Rosie O'Donnell & Dan Ackroyd. Seriously. Actually that movie fascinates me for a number of reasons. I don't think E.L. James will allow anything like that to happen here but this is not the kind of project that screams star-maker for actors looking to further their profiles. It's too much of a national punchline for that. 

I am less optimistic about a flop than yourself, my dear friend. That's for a number of reasons.

One, it's a relatively low budget movie so recouping costs will be easier than say, "John Carter". It depends on how much they spend on marketing too.

Second, E.L. James made $95m last year. People bought those books and many of them liked it. Even if we assume that a big chunk of those purchases were from curious readers looking to understand the phenomenon, or even a few hate readers, that's still a big fanbase to contend with. The fact that over 80,000 people signed that petition to get Hunnam and Dakota Johnson off the project does show that there's still some power to that fanbase. The question is whether or not it'll stick around. The 50 Shades craze has already gone through the pop culture phenomenon stages far quicker than "Twilight" or Harry Potter did, although it's a totally different age group we're dealing with. 

Then there's a big issue that James and the studio are probably keen to avoid, but people like us just can't. This film will live in the shadow of Twilight. Not just because of its fan-fiction origins but because of the way it's being treated as a phenomenon. Just swap vampires for beatings and up the age group average a few years. Taylor-Johnson and the crew can work as hard as they want to make a truly unique product, even with the most derivative of source materials, but the fact is they're making a movie of fan-fiction. That still freaks me out.

Let's theorise for a moment, my friend. Say you're Sam Taylor-Johnson. How would you even begin to make this film?

Christina: Good god, what a horrible thought. I suppose I'd try to create interesting characters, to start with. I'd want to keep it sort of dark, but also self aware. I'd basically rewrite the story and only keep the names - so I guess you could say I'd write a fanfiction of 50 Shades in order to make it into a movie.
 
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that this is not the sort of movie that will attract fangirls. Sure, throes of TwiMoms and adult women will run squealing to the cinema, but are they the sort that will go back to see it again and again? Fanboys will do it for Batman, and teenage girls did it for Leo DiCaprio in "Titanic", but can anyone honestly see this happening here?
 
I truly believe this is a movie that will live or die by the reviews, and I'd imagine the critics are already sharpening their pencils.

Ceilidh: I think that's simplifying matters somewhat. "Titanic" was the biggest movie of all time when it was released and made by a prestigious director. Fangirls may have contributed a lot to the success of that film but they didn't single-handedly push it across the billion dollar box office mark. Same for the Nolan Batman movies. Women saw those films too, and in their droves. I know I did. 

There's still a small part of me that's hoping Taylor-Johnson manages to make a dark, psycho-sexual drama about a control freak with unlimited resources trying to trap a naive woman under the guise of love. Marber has a good background with less than romantic depictions of relationships. However, I doubt James would let that slide, although she does seem to have trouble differentiating between love and abuse so maybe they can slide it past her. 

I'm trying to think of a similar kind of movie that's done really well in the cinemas. They're going for an R rating, which means it'll be heavily sanitised in terms of the sexual content, in order to sell more tickets since an NC-17 is still an instant death for film. That does also open up the question as to what the hell they're going to pad out the story with. 50 Shades has basically no plot and is choppily edited thanks to its fan-fiction nature. Will they just shoehorn in the weird Mrs Robinson clichéd thriller whatever the hell that was plot from the later books or are they saving that for the sequels? 

There's an audience for good stories about relationships, and women do put their money down more for the things they like than men. That's why fandoms are such a driving force. I wonder if this movie will be critic proof in the same way that the Twilight films were. "The Mortal Instruments" was slaughtered by critics and flopped, but that also had to do with the fanbase being nowhere near as dedicated or large as expected. We know the fanbase is there but will they be motivated to go? 

I say yes but only to an extent. Every project has its dedicated fans who will shout it from the rooftops regardless of the wider public opinion. That's why I think the movie will also still happen and won't be shelved by the studio, as funny as that would be. However, I don't think it's going to meet its release date. That'll be pushed back at least once. 

Christina: I agree, and when it does open, I predict a strong opening weekend, then a lag in ticket sales, and maybe they'll make their money back with DVD/Blu-Ray sales and rentals. 

Since the marketing for 50 Shades has already been off the ground for some time now, what sort of marketing expansions will they do for the movie? Sure, the usual posters, maybe shirts with the cast on it, a re-release of the book with the movie poster as the cover, but what else? (Restrains self from making a joke about fast food and toys in happy meals.)

You'd be hard-pressed to make the argument that the public isn't already sick of everything 50 Shades, whether they're fans of the series or not. What hasn't been done in terms of marketing, and what will they do to hype the movie?

Ceilidh: Given the fact that an official line of 50 Shades sex toys already exists, I'd say the marketing opportunities for the film won't be far off that (oh the awkward hilarity of watching TV with your mum and seeing a TV ad for 50 Shades sex toys. I'm so glad my mum's reaction to that book's popularity was "Well that looks shite.") But I do think a lot of the promotional work will just be residual hype from the book. Remember when "The Mortal Instruments" tried to bank on the supposed "worldwide phenomenon" of the books? Ah, a classic. 

They can also use the "shock factor" that comes from a project like this. It's hardly going to be "Blue Valentine", a film that's heartbreakingly realistic in its depiction of a relationship, but whether we like it or not, the project still comes with an instant level of curiosity. The book series is still selling solidly and remains in the New York Times best-seller list. Clearly, there's still some interest for it somewhere, even if it is just to see what all the fuss is about. Granted, books are somewhat cheaper than cinema tickets these days so we'll have to wait to see if said curiosity will translate to ticket sales when more money is demanded.

I want to know if they're going to even attempt to make a serious film or if they're aware of how terrible the source material is and just want to rush out something quickly, which is clearly what the studio want. The best film-makers can improve upon mediocre source material. The film of "The Devil Wears Prada" is far more interesting, wittier and generally just a better project than its sloppy source material would demand, for example. Taylor-Johnson and Marber are undeniably talented but whether they'll be given the chance to stretch their creativity remains to be seen. 

I definitely won't be seeing the film in the cinema. Maybe it'll be a late night drinking rental for me to snarkily tweet along to, like I did with "Exit to Eden". The names swirling around to replace Hunnam include some guy from "The Borgias", the gorgeous Jamie Dornan and Clint Eastwood's son (which would make for an interesting pairing with Johnson if only for the stench of nepotism that would radiate from the screen). We'll just have to wait and see. 

And since I have no idea how to end this post properly, here's a picture of Charlie Hunnam with his top off.


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