UK Box Office

Adaptation of EL James’ novel Fifty Shades of Grey is the biggest debut ever for an 18-certificate film, while Big Hero 6 and Shaun the Sheep fly the family flag.

 UK box-office spark … Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey

UK box-office spark … Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey

When, in March 2012, Universal and its Focus Features division won the bidding war to acquire film rights to EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, many may have wondered if they would end up regretting it. There hadn’t been a sex-driven commercial hit in a long time, and it was questionable that audiences wanted to see raunch on the big screen in the days of easily accessible online porn. Add to that the challenge of adapting a book that might prove more powerful in the imagination than in the depiction, featuring sex scenes that could become repetitive on screen, and padded on the page with copious contract clauses and email interchanges.

So congratulations are due to Universal and Focus, not just for a creative outcome that most would agree negotiates the challenges pretty nimbly, but also for the storm of hype whipped up with the film’s release. Few cinemagoers could have been unaware that the film was opening Valentine’s weekend, reigniting heat for a literary property that seemed to have cooled since its early peak.
Fifty Shades of Grey opened in the UK with £13.55m, the biggest debut ever for an 18-certificate film, and also the biggest for a film that is not a sequel or part of an existing film franchise. Caveat to note: comparisons are made on a like-for-like basis, looking at three-day takings on Friday-to-Sunday. For example, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone grossed £9.46m over that period, but previews pushed its opening gross ahead of the Fifty Shades number.

In the all-time rankings, including sequels and franchise films, Fifty Shades of Grey ranks ninth, behind various Harry Potter, Bond and Twilight pictures and The Dark Knight Rises. Again, these are for three-day figures, counting box-office just on the Friday-to-Sunday period. The Fifty Shades number is the biggest opening in 26 months – since The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 in November 2012 (£15.81m).
The film played at 586 cinemas at the weekend, but its screen count would have been far higher, easily passing 1,000. Programming was particularly aggressive on the opening Friday – for example, Odeon Printworks in Manchester offered 43 individual showtimes that day – falling on Saturday and Sunday as the family films were fed more into the mix. The film played not just in multiplexes, but in indie chains such as Picturehouse, Everyman and Curzon.

Although Fifty Shades of Grey is not a sequel, it is nevertheless based on a property with an avid fanbase that will have been eager to see the film at the first opportunity. Even Universal would probably concede that the box-office curve will prove similar in shape to a sequel, with a rather rapid tailing off. On the other hand, even if the film only achieves 2.5 times the opening weekend number over its lifetime, that would be around £34m in the UK.
Whatever happens, Fifty Shades looks absolutely certain to overtakeThe Wolf of Wall Street (£22.7m lifetime) to become the biggest ever 18-certificate title in this market. This is a movie where the 18 certificate can be considered in no way a hindrance – in fact, audiences would have been rightly suspicious of a Fifty Shades film that won a 15 rating. Usually, film distributors push for the lowest possible rating, but it’s easy to envision Universal asking the question of the UK censor: what exactly do we need to include to secure an 18?

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