Movie theaters are exposing their naughty sides in anticipation of the release of “Fifty Shades of Grey” this weekend.
The adaptation of the first of E.L. James’ racy books about college student Anastasia Steele, who is drawn into the world of BDSM by a brooding billionaire named Christian Grey, is causing exhibitors to break out the whips and ball gags as they brace for a record weekend at the Presidents’ Day holiday box office. “Fifty Shades of Grey” is expected to debut to more than $50 million domestically.
To whet fans’ appetites, theaters like the Alamo Drafthouse will give away chocolate handcuffs and are featuring S&M photo booths in their lobbies, complete with toys and a bed.
“I’m excited and a little scared to see what our guests will get up to,” said Sarah Pitre, director of programming and promotions at Alamo.
Alamo locations have a full menu of snacks and entrees, and the theater chain is taking advantage of “Fifty Shades of Grey’s” release to experiment with playful food items such as beaten and stuffed chicken, which is filled with artichokes and prosciutto and served on a bed of bow “tie me up” pasta. There’s also red room velvet cake, a reference of Grey’s den of pleasures, complete with a creamy vanilla frosting that adds up to a sure-to-be sinful calorie count.
Alamo says that opening night tickets sold out within days of going on sale and the theater’s locations have been working on offering additional showtimes.
“I will say there’s been fervor for this film that’s been unmatched by many in recent years,” said Mike Sherrill, chief creative officer at Alamo. “We want to create an experience that’s fun and unique. We’re doing different things in different markets. We think it’s going to be a hoot and be crazy.”
Other theater chains are also getting in on the “Fifty Shades” frenzy, albeit without the S&M photo booths. Cinemark is hosting a contest giving fans a chance to win a weekend getaway in Seattle, the film’s setting, complete with a helicopter tour and a hotel room outfitted with champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries.
Fellow exhibitors are hosting special events tied to the premiere or partnering with local restaurants and shopkeepers on “Fifty Shades of Grey” promotions. Maryland-based Leitersburg Cinemas sold out its wine and a movie event in honor of the film five weeks before the premiere. Fans snapped up tickets to a night that includes live music; samples and products from cheese shops, bakeries and jewelers; and drinks from five area wineries, in addition to the a screening of the film itself.
The event’s organizer Melissa Fountain said she barely had to do any promotional activity in order to attract interest.
“We pulled a lot of marketing materials,” she said. “Unlike other events, you can’t squeeze people in. Once seats are sold, you’re done.”
The majority of ticket buyers to these special events are couples or groups of women looking for a “girls’ night out.”
“It will be a night for a lot of people looking to spice up their love life,” said Danny Digiacomo, director of marketing at Movie Tavern, which is hosting special screenings with wine and dessert. “We don’t expect anyone to be overly rowdy, but we do expect to see a lot of people having fun and that there will be a lot of audience engagement.”
Not everyone is so enamored. The film’s sadomasochistic sexual sequences have inspired protests and calls for boycotts from anti-pornography and religious groups, as well as organizations concerned with domestic abuse.
“The film glamorizes sexual violence,” said Amanda Smith, communications director for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. “The behaviors in the movie can be lethal to women and the reality is that living with the real Christian Grey rarely has a happy ending.”
The D.C.-based advocacy group is urging people to donate to women’s shelters instead of paying to see the film and has launched a social media campaign that employs the hashtags #50ShadesIsAbuse and #50DollarsNot50Shades.
It’s rare to find a mainstream Hollywood movie that relies heavily on sexually provocative content, let alone less than vanilla pursuits such as bondage. After all, it’s been more than two decades since “Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct” heated up screens. Sex remains largely the purview of raunchy comedies starring Seth Rogen, and internet porn. Consequently, it’s not surprising that a film meant to quicken pulses would raise objections.
Universal, the studio behind the film, has been careful to stress the “Fifty Shades” is a romance, not a sex romp, in its marketing materials. Many businesses hoping to capitalize on the film’s release have seized on that aspect of the story, particularly given that the film’s debut coincides with Valentine’s Day.
Las Vegas-based restaurant Whist Stove and Spirit is having a special “Fifty Shades” dinner, with a menu that includes strip steak and chocolate cake doughnuts, along with a private screening of the film.
“To have a film about sexual love and romance tied to Valentine’s Day is just the perfect accompaniment to a good meal,” said Antonio Nunez, the restaurant’s executive chef.
Beyond multiplexes and restaurants, sex shops report that they are seeing a rise in interest from customers looking to try out Christian and Anastasia’s sexual games in their own red rooms. Pleasure Chest, a Manhattan-based sex shop, has been offering “Fifty Shades” themed classes once a week since the book became a best-selling phenomenon. Interest around the movie has caused demand to soar, and now classes are offered nearly every night.
“Ever since the book came out people have been revisiting their sexuality,” said Brandon Bartling, the store’s manager. “Any time sex or more specifically kink gets embraced in popular media, it gives people a sense of permission to discuss and examine things they might otherwise feel weird asking questions about.”