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Analysis: Why Haven’t There Been Fifty Shades of Grey Copycats?

February 8th, 2018

Fifty Shades Freed

This weekend the Fifty Shades franchise is expected to surpass $1 billion in total worldwide box office with the release of the final installment, Fifty Shades Freed. All that income comes from films with an estimated combined budget for all three films of $150 million. The last time Hollywood saw this kind of success with an erotic drama/thriller, it created an entire subgenre that ate its way all through the 90s. Yet, after this year, it seems Valentine’s Day weekend will be left without a Fifty Shades replacement. So why the hesitancy from Hollywood to step up to the challenge this time?

There’s a certain ebb and flow to the way Hollywood functions. A film that many think is a flash in the pan is released to more box office success than was expected. Its new and unique approach causes Hollywood to scramble, greenlighting every film with even a hint of that initial hit. Such was the case in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when two erotic thrillers starring Michael Douglas broke new ground in terms of box office success. The first was Fatal Attraction, which grossed over $150 million domestically and earned a surprising six Oscar nominations. Then five years later came Basic Instinct, the sleazier cousin to Attraction that received far worse critical notices, but pushed the boundaries of the R-rating and walked away with over $100 million domestically. With that, the floodgates were opened and Hollywood was primed to explore what seemed to be America’s new acceptance of open sexuality, or at least their lust for very explicit sex scenes. Films like Jade, Sliver, and Body of Evidence tried to recapture the magic of those early hits, but soon the theatrical films began to merge with the cheap direct-to-video trash, until the whole genre died out. 

Nothing too surprising here. Hollywood found a niche and exploited it to death. It’s a tale as old as Hollywood. So why, when Fifty Shades of Grey translated the whirlwind success of the books into a $150 million plus domestic gross and a $85 million plus opening, has there been nothing swooping in to replace or replicate it? Seems easy enough to try: create a new couple, explore some mild kink elements and hire a currently hot pop star to write you a trailer song. Yet no studio has even tried. 

Perhaps Fifty Shades is just too odd a franchise in and of itself. The first film’s success could easily be chalked up to a mix of curiosity and daring. Part of the appeal of the sex thriller genre were “those scenes”, you know where you tell your friend about that one scene where the girl/guy does this. It’s a trope that doesn’t really work in the modern day. Why pay $12 to see “that scene” in The Counselor for instance when it can be on YouTube in 6 months. But there is something to be said about the curiosity of something widely mocked, yet extremely popular. There’s also the fun party aspect of seeing something "naughty" in a group, which drove sales of Magic Mike, but ended up not translating to Magic Mike XXL, because Magic Mike was well… shockingly dark, and people didn’t want to be fooled again. The first Fifty Shades film could have succeeded on these flash in the pan merits alone. 

The second film certainly showed major signs of decline, as Fifty Shades Darker opened almost $40 million lower than the original and closed with over $175 million less worldwide. It also came a year too late due to scheduling and contract disputes. Still, Fifty Shades Darker finished with over $100 million domestically and had a multiplier of 2.4x, a significant improvement over the original’s multiplier of 1.9x. So, despite the fact that Darker arrived late, it still managed to push the franchise just $50 million shy of $1 billion, before the final film was even released. It’s unlikely Fifty Shades Freed will reach the heights of the original either, but at this point it doesn’t really matter as Universal will take a victory lap while far exceeding their initial investment. I don’t think it really comes down to a declining interest in the main progenitor of this genre that more such films haven’t been made.

 I think to find the answer we need to look at the state of the young adult genre. Films aimed at teens have existed since the invention of the idea of the “teenager.” However, in recent years the level of original films aimed at teens and younger have changed dramatically, due in large part to the success of film series like Harry Potter and Twilight. These films brought in a huge audience of loyal book readers, who drove immense opening weekends and turned teen lit into a cornerstone of many studios. Now we are in an age where even teen films that cost $10 million (like Everything, Everything) need a hit book to be based on. 

And I think the same is true for Fifty Shades. I don’t think Hollywood looks at Fifty Shades as the revival of the erotic drama, I think they look at it as a YA hit for adults. Or, to put it another way, I think Hollywood views Fifty Shades as an anomaly, and they have every right to. While Hollywood hasn’t been copying Fifty Shades, the book world certainly has, with stores littered with endless copycats of romantic novels with kink added in for spice, all with the same Fifty Shades style cover. Not a single one of these books has come close to capturing the cultural zeitgeist as Fifty Shades did. To me that’s the real answer here, there are no books to back up any copycats. Trying to establish your own, 100% original erotic drama series would require a lot of faith that the audience even cares about something like Fifty Shades that’s not called Fifty Shades. And it isn’t to say there isn't still the occasional erotic thriller, but most of them seem to be more in the vein of Basic Instinct. 

Perhaps if there was another book series like Fifty Shades that was popular, it would have been made into a film and we would know more definitively if there really is a major desire out there for these kinds of films or if it’s just a popular book series’ fans being loyal. But that’s a lot of what-ifs and Hollywood isn’t in the what-if business anymore. The sign on the door now says, “established properties only.” So, next year won’t see a Fifty Shades clone, but the usual Valentine’s weekend fare of a rom-com (Isn’t It Romantic) and a horror movie (an as-yet-untitled Blumhouse film).

 I guess I should be clear, I am not personally lamenting the loss of a wave of Fifty Shades clones. I have plenty of issues with the genuine article and the idea of more is truly headache-inducing. But it’s unusual to see a film series this successful say its farewells while having zero impact on the film culture. But I think Hollywood has made the case that you don’t create something new after an established property hit. What you do is you find another established property like it or you don’t make the copycat film at all.

M.I. Barish

Filed under: Harry Potter, Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey