How Fifty Shades of Grey may defy the odds to become a box office smash

How Fifty Shades of Grey may defy the odds to become a box office smash

As you may have noticed, an adaptation of a certain best-selling erotic fiction book  will be unleashed in cinemas around the world this week. In purely econometric terms, there are all sorts of reasons why this film should not make money: February is historically a low point in the box office calendar, entire audience segments are too young to see it, and the content is explicit enough to be divisive. However as this film is Fifty Shades of Grey, a global phenomenon backed by a perfect storm of marketing and social buzz, the rules may no longer apply.

It’s all about timing

February is by no means the quietest period in terms of box office, but tends to fall way behind the blockbuster summer months. In terms of US opening weekend box office the May-July period has seen 69 movies open to more than $60 million. Only two titles released in February have ever managed this commercial feat. (The Passion of the Christ and The LEGO Movie, in case you were wondering.)

fifty shades table

However, the film’s delayed release (originally scheduled for August 1, 2014) may prove to be a blessing for a variety of reasons:

  • Monday the 16th of February is Presidents Day in the US, meaning an effective 4 day release weekend.
  • Nobody wants to have their plans ruined by a sold out multiplex on Valentine’s Day. This has contributed to advance booking sales records being broken across the world. (Even in some surprising areas, such as the usually conservative bible-belt of the USA.)
  • The infamously expensive, but massively viewed Super Bowl spot on February 1st is so fresh in people’s minds that there hasn’t been time for the social tidal wave of conversation to die down. (And, as seen in our analysis of all the Super Bowl trailers, Fifty Shades generated considerably more buzz than any other film.)
  • After so many worthwhile biopics and artistically experimental pieces occupying screens during awards season, viewers may feel like succumbing to a guilty pleasure this weekend.

Knowing your audience

R rated films are also few and far between when it comes to box office titans. The Matrix Reloaded currently holds the opening weekend US box office record for an R rated title ($91 million), and American Sniper surprised forecasters last month with an impressive opening haul of $89 million. But given that Fifty Shades’ R rating is due to the mass of sexual content (20% of the running time is reportedly devoted to sex scenes) there are no comparable titles anywhere near the upper echelons of the box office rankings, where R ratings are typically due to explicit violence or gross-out comedy.

The XX-factor

As this year’s Oscar nods for Best Director show, this field still has a diversity problem. The directors of the biggest cinematic franchises are almost always male, meaning that Twilight’s opening weekend takings of $69 million is currently the most successful for a solo female director (Catherine Hardwicke).   This is only enough to put it at 76 of the all-time largest opening weekends. So while Fifty Shades will inevitably spark debate regarding its implications for 21st century feminism, whether it is liberating, demeaning, or just a steamy bit of frivolous entertainment, there is a very real possibility that director Sam Taylor-Johnson may soon shatter a few commercial glass ceilings.

Social buzz

Fifty Shades is in a league of its own from a social buzz perspective, with the film mentioned over 320,000 times on media channels2 in the US over the past week. To put this into perspective, this is more than triple the pre-release buzz volume of the most recent Hunger Games instalment. However social buzz does not always translate into box office success, as was demonstrated when the (famously vocal) One Direction fans unleashed a tsunami of buzz in the run up to the release of 1D: This is us, but opened with a surprisingly low $16 million weekend box office. And, for a film like Fifty Shades, there may be certain audience segments that are happy to Tweet about it, but slightly less comfortable actually buying a ticket. But considering this is buzz for a non-sequel romantic drama, without major A-list star power, the Fifty Shades marketing team has clearly done something right.

Precise forecasting is near impossible for a film as unique as Fifty Shades of Grey, but it seems likely that next week’s industry reports will be packed with pun-filled headlines of “dominating the box office” and “tying up the competition”. But will audiences “lose control” and translate social buzz and anticipation into a spectacular success story? Only time will tell…

 Sources: Box Office Mojo, Sysomos

  1. Based on major US releases over the past 2 years
  2. Twitter, news, forums and blogs