Studio wins bidding frenzy for E.L. James ebook

With their successful bid for feature film rights to E.L. James’ steamy novel “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Universal Pictures and Focus Features brought a best-of-both-worlds appeal to the table.

Deal was announced early Monday by Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson and co-chairman Donna Langley after several days of meetings with Paramount, Warner Bros., Sony, Lionsgate and others, and insiders said that as part of U’s pitch, Langley, who oversees Focus, emphasized that the author would have the option of working with the larger studio operation or the speciality arm.

The final pricetag is unclear but sources told Variety it was in the mid-seven-figure range.

Universal and Focus will partner in the development of the film, with Focus marketing and distributing the adaptation in partnership with Universal Pictures. Universal also has acquired rights to the other two books in the series, “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed.”

It’s understood that James responded well to the idea that the studio will work to ensure the pic finds a wide commercial audience but carry an arty, Focus-style feel.

James was said to be looking for a deal similar to her recently inked publishing pact with Random House division Vintage, where she had the option of working with either the bigger or smaller domain. “Grey” had a limited print run through Australia’s Writer’s Coffee Shop Publishing and is currently dominating ebook sales, fueled by a fervent female fanbase. Vintage announced in early March that it had acquired rights to republish the trilogy in the U.S. and will release the U.S. paperback version on April 3.

U and Focus brass pitched plans to make and sell a sexcapade that — if it’s true to the steamy source material — will have to be reined in just to get an R rating.

Focus has a strong record of bringing sensitive material revolving around taboo romances to the screen.

In 2007 the studio released Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution,” which drew headlines after the film was given an NC-17 rating. The year before, Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” went on to strong box office and Oscars for the screenplay and director.

Since it could be difficult to obtain an R-rating for the explicit story, the pic is expected to be budgeted much lower than recent adaptations such as Sony’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” and Lionsgate’s “Hunger Games.”

Story centers on soon-to-be college grad Anastasia Steele, who strikes up an S&M romance with successful young entrepreneur Christian Grey.

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