Producers jockey for ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

Shortlist includes Jacobson, De Luca, Stuber, Sher, Grazer

As “Fifty Shades of Grey” author E.L. James and lit agent Val Hoskins spend the week in town to discuss a feature adaptation of the bestselling erotic novel with high-level execs at Universal Pictures and Focus Features, the search for producers has narrowed significantly, with a decision expected soon.

James and Hoskins have already met with dozens of producers, some based on the Universal lot, others off, though all are being asked to commit to the project full-time. Production companies were quick to trot out female producers in an effort to entice James, though sources say the producer, and furthermore the director, won’t necessarily be female just because women comprise the majority of the book’s fan base.

Sources tell Variety that the studios have focused their search on a shortlist that now includes (in alphabetical order): Michael De Luca; Ron Howard and Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment; Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson of Color Force; Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher of Double Feature Films; and Scott Stuber of Bluegrass Films. Other names are believed to still be in the mix.

Universal had no comment.

— De Luca is said to be a candidate to watch, given his longstanding relationship with Universal co-chair Donna Langley, the exec largely responsible for “Shades” landing at U. De Luca has a deal at Sony, where he produced Best Picture nominees “The Social Network” and “Moneyball,” both based on high-profile books.

— Imagine has been chasing the coveted gig hard and, as arguably the highest-profile production company on the Universal lot, makes it into the final round. Still, Universal and Focus are said to want a younger producer who has experience with edgy material — something Imagine does not possess.

— Stuber is coming off Universal’s big-budget disappointment “Battleship,” though he also produced the hit “Safe House” and is behind what could be the sleeper hit of the summer, Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted.”

— The frontrunners appear to be Jacobson and the Double Feature duo of Shamberg and Sher. That latter are producers of equal status who bring both sexes’ perspective to the material; they also have experience handling edgy fare as exec producers of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (duo are currently producing “Django Unchained”). Shamberg and Sher also have a long history of producing pics with strong female characters, such as Jennifer Lopez in “Out of Sight,” Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich” and Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill.”

— Jacobson may be the best positioned for the job, but the success she had with “The Hunger Games” may put her at a disadvantage, since the studio is looking to a hire a producer who can focus full-time on “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and Jacobson will undoubtedly have her hands full with the “Hunger Games” sequels.

Rumors have also surfaced that Focus topper James Schamus may end up writing the script himself. Schamus is a frequent collaborator with Ang Lee, who has experience handling controversial sexual material, having directed “Brokeback Mountain” and “Lust, Caution.”

While Universal and Focus certainly have a say in who will write, produce, direct and star, one producer tells Variety that “[James] has worked in the entertainment industry and is not going to let anyone dictate who gets put on her movie.” Indeed, James, a former television executive from the U.K., has final approval over the filmmakers and talent. One producer remarked: “Like J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, E.L. understands the fan base — because she is the fan base.”