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How ‘Fifty Shades’ Drew Fans Willing To Go the Extra Mile — To Avoid Being Seen

Behind the Universal marketing scheme that beat bondage qualms and built a blockbuster with romance and a great date

Movie theaters showing “Fifty Shades of Grey” over the weekend told Universal Pictures distribution executives that they’d noticed something odd. Lots of tickets were being sold to people from nearby communities, rather than locals.

They’d driven to the next zip code because, while they wanted to see the bondage-laced romance on the big screen on opening weekend, they weren’t comfortable sitting next to their kids’ principal, or their neighbors, while they did.

The R-rated adaptation of E.L. James’ erotic novels made $94 million over the four-day Presidents Day weekend that ended Monday. For the Universal marketing team, the tale of the traveling ticket buyers typified the challenges they’d faced –and felt like a win. So did “Fifty Shades of Grey” grossing more than $267 million globally on a $40 million budget, and making Sam Taylor-Johnson the highest-grossing female director ever.

They had managed to get women, who made up the vast majority of the books’ fans and were most comfortable reading on their Kindles or curled up in the den, to submit to big-screen bondage in crowded theaters.

“We had to make them feel as if they had permission,” said Nick Carpou, Universal’s distribution chief.

“Fifty Shades” might have been profitable even if just a good percentage of those who’d read the book bought tickets. But to break into the box-office stratosphere, it would need mainstream moviegoers, and at least some who thought handcuffs were just for criminals.

Romance, not sex, was at the heart of the “Fifty Shades” campaign created by the studio’s marketing chief Josh Goldstine and co-president Michael Moses and blessed by Donna Langley, the studio chairman who acquired the project for the studio. The sex in the movie could have sold itself, but that wouldn’t have been enough.

“We had to convince people this was a real movie,” said Carpou. That meant emphasizing the stylish look of the film to convey elegance and class to the right crowd.

The early TV commercials were aimed at the sophisticated audiences of shows like “Scandal,” and sent a clear message: powerful women aggregate and affiliate.

The same went for the first trailer, which teased the sexuality but was more about a young woman’s fantasy of a relationship with wealthy businessman, and featured Beyonce singing a new version of “Drunk in Love.” It was last year’s most-viewed movie trailer, an early indicator of how big the “Fifty Shades” buzz would get.

While romance was the over-arching theme of the campaign, curiosity was a buzz word, too. Billboards and online ads featured Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele with her arms raised above her head as if they’re tied, with Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey leaning in to kiss her. “Curious?” read the tagline.

The skeptics were encouraged with the water-cooler angle, which said “this is a big deal, and if you want to have an opinion and weigh in, you’d better see it.” That was the goal of the pricey Super Bowl ad, which seemed an unusual play, given the film’s female base.

At the same time, the media’s new-found fascination with kink and all things “Fifty Shades” — sex toys, blindfolds and Christian Grey teddy bears — contributed to the film’s off-the-charts awareness levels. Tracking was strong and steady at around $60 million from the start, but social media and early tickets sales indicated it could go higher. “Fifty Shades” broke advance sales records for R-rated movies at Fandango and Movietickets.com. By the end of the weekend, Fandango sales represented 29 percent of the sales.

Romance played a big part in another critical decision on “Fifty Shades,” which came soon after Charlie Hunnam, the original choice to play Christian Grey, dropped out of the project last October.

Rather than hustle to make the original Aug. 1, 2014 release date after Jamie Dornan was chosen as his replacement, the studio pushed it to Friday, Feb. 13 of 2015. The next day was Valentine’s Day and the following Monday was Presidents Day. The studio knew that the shift would would draw suggestions that “Fifty Shades” was in trouble, but the chance to sync the romance-themed campaign with Valentine’s Day and a four-day weekend was worth it. (What they didn’t know then was how big a hit “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which opened on the original Aug. 1 date, was going to be.)

“It created a perfect storm at the box office,” Carpou said Sunday, after couples flocked to the film and brought in $36.7 million on Saturday, the biggest box-office day ever in February. The audience was 82 percent women on Friday, but with the guys along on Saturday, it dropped to 64 percent

They connected with two other very specific audiences targets, too. The book’s super fans turned out to deliver $8.6 million from Thursday late shows, and “girls night out” groups drove a $30 million Friday.

“Fifty Shades” was produced by Michael DeLuca, Dana Brunetti and author James,. It’s not official, but at least one sequel seem likely. It’s unlikely there will be the same feeling of lightning in a bottle, though.

“It was almost overwhelming at times,” Carpou said. “But we never had any delusions about controlling the news. At some point, you control what you can and hope the rest works out. ”

That’s probably not the perspective Christian Grey would take, but it was just right for making box-office history with “Fifty Shades of Grey.”