‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Selling Romance Over Whips Is Working

Steamy Jamie Dornan-Dakota Johnson adaptation is tracking for a Valentine’s opening north of $45 million

Persuading moviegoers to view “Fifty Shades of Grey” more as a romance rather than “mommy porn” has been a primary goal of the film’s marketers. And it’s working, if the pre-release box-office tracking that came online Thursday is on the money.

Focus Features and Universal Pictures’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” is heading for an opening north of $45 million when it rolls out on Friday, Feb. 13, Those are early numbers and could well rise before the Valentine’s Day debut. It’s the fastest-selling R-rated movie ever at Fandango, and the following Monday is Presidents Day, so “Fifty Shades” will have every chance to score big over the long holiday weekend.

The bondage and erotic submission central to E.L. James’ steamy novels, which have sold more than 100 million copies, will be a big part of the movie and account for its R-rating. But the relationship between Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) is what the Focus and Universal marketing campaign is spotlighting.

Readers of the “Fifty Shades” books provide a potentially huge core audience for the film. The studio wouldn’t talk marketing ahead of the release, but a key to the box office will be how many of those mainly female fans will be comfortable watching whips, blindfolds and beyond at a movie theater?

Giving them “permission” to go out and see the movie — preferably with some friends — is central to the “Fifty Shades” campaign. The subtly suggestive billboards and branding imply classiness and emphasize the intrigue, and are designed to sell it as a classic boy-meets-girl love story and escapist fare that won’t scare off mainstream moviegoers.

Prominently featuring Beyonce’s new version of her hit “Drunk in Love” in the trailer was intended to do that, and became 2014’s most-watched clip on YouTube. Songs by mainstream favorites Frank Sinatra and Annie Lennox should also make older audiences more comfortable.

“Fifty Shades” has 7.2 million “likes” on Facebook, or seven times the following of the book, suggesting plenty of awareness and curiosity for the film.

“All the press that the book received about the sex, and even the supposedly horrible writing, is a such a big positive for the movie,” said Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “And with that great opening date, every young woman and teen girl is going to get their friends and go, even if they wind up giggling  through it,” he said.

And he believes men might be there in greater numbers than expected, even though Fox is opening the male-skewing Colin Firth action saga “Kingsman: The Secret Service” against it in a counter play.

“A lot of the girls are going to win that argument and drag their guys along,” he said. “And the lure of sex and bondage is sure to pique interest for some others.”

To what extent all that translates into box office, we’ll find out in three weeks.