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Can Sam Taylor-Johnson Light a Fire Under ’50 Shades of Grey’?

Helmer already directed 'one man "Brokeback Mountain"' art-porn short

Sam Taylor-Johnson may have landed the sexiest directing job in town, but the indie helmer must now make “50 Shades of Grey” into something that can recapture the buzz it once had. Here are a few factors that will affect how commercial and marketable “50 Shades” will be by the time it’s finally produced.

Waning interest?: Universal first came on board the erotic novel more than a year ago. At the time, “Shades,” which started as an e-book originally based on a “Twilight” fan fiction story, had sold 32 million copies and created a movie-rights bidding war. But “Shades” isn’t generating the headlines it once did, and its long gestation time will test whether its momentum can still draw an audience by the time the film finally comes out.

Big bet: “Shades” has been an anomaly from the get-go. “Shades'” vivid images of sex, bondage and S&M quickly earned it the moniker of “housewife porn.” The tome spent nearly a year atop the New York Times bestseller list and sparked a bidding war that saw every studio except Disney salivating for the film rights. Universal eventually paid about $3 million for the project — more than most studios have ever paid for a book, let alone an original e-book by an unpublished author.

Slow burn: Universal attached Mike De Luca and Dana Brunetti to produce the pic in July, and the pair set Kelly Marcel to pen the script in October. Speculation soon began to swirl about who would direct the project, and so Hollywood waited. And waited. In March, De Luca set Taylor-Johnson to direct Sony’s “The Reliable Wife,” but still no word on “Shades.” Universal finally announced it had selected Taylor-Johnson on Wednesday — one week after the book fell off the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

Indie aesthetic: “50 Shades of Grey” would not be Taylor-Johnson’s first foray into erotic filmmaking. She was one of seven filmmakers who contributed to the 2006 art-porn omnibus “Destricted,” which screened at that year’s Sundance and Cannes film festivals. Her entry, “Death Valley,” featuring a young man masturbating in the desert for eight minutes, was described by Variety critic Scott Foundas as a piece of “high-art autoerotica” that “plays like a one-man ‘Brokeback Mountain.'”

Now 46, Taylor-Johnson spent the first part of her career as an artist and photographer. She met her husband, 23-year-old actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, on the set of her first film “Nowhere Boy,” and sources say U is also eyeing the actor for the lead role of Christian Grey.

The James factor: One reason the hunt for Johnson took so long: “Shades” author E.L. Jamesironclad oversight over the film’s creative direction.

James had the right to approve the pic’s director, writer, and other creative elements — a provision that some reps worry gives the author, a Brit who has never worked in Hollywood, too much creative control.

Too sexy for bigscreens?: Johnson will have to attract the female auds that originally propelled “Shades” into the spotlight. Her challenge will be to translate the book’s vivid images of sex, bondage and S&M onto the bigscreen without going overboard. U is anticipating the film will earn an R rating from the MPAA, even though the novel’s content might lend itself better to an NC-17 pic.

Pushing the “Tattoo” envelope: Some observers have drawn a comparison between “Shades” and Sony’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” based on an edgy, dark and violent book by Stieg Larsson. Sony had high hopes for the global bestseller. And while “Dragon Tattoo” grossed $220 million worldwide, some say that execs had slightly higher hopes — and they have yet to greenlight a sequel.

(Justin Chang contributed to this report.)

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