“Fifty Shades of Grey” sizzled at the weekend box office, setting new records for the highest-grossing Presidents Day holiday opener of all time and ranking among the biggest R-rated debuts in history.
The erotic drama performed like a comicbook movie, albeit one with much naughtier costumes, picking up $81.7 million from 3,646 locations over the three-day period. That easily trumped the holiday’s previous record-holder, the 2010 debut of the romantic comedy “Valentine’s Day,” which kicked off with $56.3 million.
“It had that whole sex thing going for it, it was edgy, and it started a conversation,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior box office analyst at Rentrak. “It went beyond being a girls’ night out movie and became a date night movie.”
“Fifty Shades of Grey” will do more than $90 million over the four-day holiday, in addition to triggering a massive increase in heart palpitations across the moviegoing public. Among the many high-water marks the saucy tale has hit, the film’s debut is the second-biggest in February history behind “The Passion of the Christ” and the fourth-biggest R-rated premiere, trailing “The Matrix Reloaded,” “The Hangover: Part II” and Mel Gibson’s aforementioned crucifixion tale.
It’s been more than a decade since “Basic Instinct” and “Disclosure” heated up the box office with sexually charged bigscreen fantasies and visions. The Internet and explicit cable TV shows had made kinky cinematic adventures seem positively anachronistic, but by mixing romance with bondage, author E.L. James was able to put a fresh spin on a limp genre, selling 100 million copies of her book and inspiring the smash hit movie. It’s an approach that could usher in a new period of sexual candor in cinema — at the very least it seems likely to last through “Fifty Shades” parts two and three.
In marketing materials, Universal Pictures, the studio behind the $40 million production, emphasized the love story elements of the tale of a brooding billionaire (Jamie Dornan) who whisks a timid college student (Dakota Johnson) away into a world of glider rides, pregnant pauses, smoldering glances, impossibly tight jeans, and the occasional detour into S&M.
“We worked to make this film accessible to the widest audience possible,” said Nick Carpou, Universal’s president of domestic distribution. “The campaign was carefully crafted to highlight the quality of the production value and to heighten the romantic aspect of the storyline and the interpersonal relationship at its heart.”
Universal had originally slated “Fifty Shades of Grey” for an October 2014 release but moved its premiere to Valentine’s Day. The timing proved advantageous.
“The gamble paid off,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “It flies in the face of what you’d expect to be released on that day. It’s usually safe and non-offensive dramas and comedies.”
“Fifty Shades of Grey’s” opening weekend audience was 68% female, 52% Caucasian, 22% Hispanic and 15% African-American. The picture played well on premium large format screens, which drew $7.4 million, as well as on Imax, which contributed $2.1 million. Reviews for the film were tepid, and it appears audiences agree with critics, handing the film a lackluster C+ CinemaScore grade. Most analysts think the film will fall sharply in its follow-up weekends.
The movie business tends to be fixated on youth, but this Presidents Day was remarkable for the amount of adult-oriented content it boasted. “Fifty Shades of Grey” wasn’t the only R-rated picture that did impressive business — 20th Century Fox’s tongue-in-cheek spy thriller “Kingsman: The Secret Service” premiered to $35.6 million from 3,204 locations. It should do more than $41 million over the four-day holiday.
Like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Kingsman” had originally been scheduled to debut last October, but Fox saw an opening for some counterprogramming. It knew that “Fifty Shades” would be the clear choice for female ticket buyers, allowing the studio to siphon off male moviegoers.
“We knew [‘Fifty Shades of Grey’] was going to be a big movie, but it seemed like everyone else was staying away, and we saw an opportunity,” said Chris Aronson, Fox’s domestic distribution chief. “This is a terrific, smart action movie that’s primarily geared toward males.”
Filmed for $81 million and directed by “X-Men:First Class” helmer Matthew Vaughn, “Kingsman” features Colin Firth as a sort of ass-kicking George Smiley and newcomer Taron Egerton as the street tough he takes under his impeccably tailored wing. Fifty seven percent of the film’s opening weekend crowd was male, and 60% was over the age of 25.
Last weekend’s champ, “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water,” was able to mop up the family business, earning an estimated $30.5 million for the three-day weekend. The animated sequel will have made more than $100 million by the time the holiday ends.
Warner Bros.’ “American Sniper” blasted past another benchmark, crossing $300 million at the domestic box office after adding another $16.4 million over the weekend.
Fifth place finisher “Jupiter Ascending” insured that there will be writedowns at Warner Bros. The science-fiction adventure took in $9.4 million for the three-day period and has made $32.5 million since it debuted last weekend. Its $176 million production budget and tens of millions in marketing and distribution costs make profitability nearly impossible.
Among milestones, “Big Hero 6” passed “Beauty and the Beast” to become the third highest-grossing Disney Animation release with $219.3 million, behind “The Lion King” and “Frozen.”
On the arthouse front, the Anna Kendrick musical comedy “The Last Five Years” pulled in $45,107 across three screens, for a per-screen average of $15,036. The Radius-TWC release also debuted on video-on-demand. The indie label’s “Citizenfour,” the Oscar-nominated documentary about Edward Snowden, made $31,138 this weekend from 17 theaters, pushing its total to $2.6 million. That’s a strong figure for documentaries, which are lucky to reach $1 million theatrically.
Thanks to “Fifty Shades of Grey’s” utter domination, the Stateside box office is poised to have a record-breaking Presidents Day weekend. Rentrak estimates that ticket sales hit $209 million for the three day period, eclipsing the $205 million mark set in 2010, and the overall box office should top out at $240 million, squeaking ahead of the $239 million it hit that same year.
Sex, it seems, still sells, especially when it involves a riding crop.