It’s the question Universal Pictures Chairman Donna Langley gets asked most often: “How do you make a movie out of Fifty Shades?” Her answer: very carefully.
It’s Tuesday at the annual theater chain convention CinemaCon, and Universal Pictures concluded its lengthy slate presentation with the footage Fifty Shades fans have been waiting breathlessly to see since the studio bought the rights to the best-selling novels last year.
But rather then fill the five-minute teaser with the sex that made the books by British author E L James so popular, the studio went against expectations and highlighted the romance between the two leads: virginal college student Anastasia Steele (played by Dakota Johnson) and 28-year-old domineering billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan).
The clip showcased the burgeoning romance, filling the screen with some of the iconic moments fans of the book will remember, like the first introduction in his office: Anastasia nervous and earnest; Grey, handsome and aloof. Grey’s surprise appearance at the hardware store and his helicopter also make an appearance. Plus audiences were given a sense of the Grey psyche with Dornan uttering, “Hearts and flowers: That’s not who I am.”
But with the exception of a brief blindfold, a hand on a thigh and a glimpse of a riding crop, Mr. Grey’s penchant for domineering sex was kept to a minimum. (The footage did feature him opening the doors to the Red Room, but alas, there was no wide shot of his illicit den.) In fact, there was more sex featured in Universal’s footage of the Seth Rogen-Zac Efron comedy Neighbors than anything found in the Fifty Shades footage.
Rather, the emotional component to the book’s storyline was highlighted with quick appearances from Anastasia’s mom, played by Jennifer Ehle, enthusiastic that her daughter has met someone new; her roommate (Eloise Mumford) warning her not to get hurt and even the heroine protesting that Mr. Grey is trying to change her. He protests with an earnest, “It’s you who’s changing me.”
It’s clear that the studio is rolling this out as carefully — and meticulously — as possible. It’s just unclear whether playing up the romance in the early footage is the way to get theater owners interested in the property.
Time will tell.