When Universal releases Fifty Shades Freed on Feb. 9, it will close the final chapter on the S&M trilogy that already has earned nearly $1 billion worldwide. The third installment marks a happily-ever-after ending for kinky couple Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. But it also may prove to be the finale for studio-financed sex-fueled films.
As Hollywood begins to navigate the #MeToo landscape, one of the first casualties appears to be big-screen erotica. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, studios are steering clear of sex.
The Bradley Cooper-helmed A Star Is Born remake at Warner Bros. has morphed from steamy to something far more chaste, say insiders. The Hugh Hefner biopic that once was set up at Warner Bros. is all but dead — even without the now-disgraced Brett Ratner at the helm. ("What's going to happen to the poor girls when they go in for that audition?" asks Rae Dawn Chong, one of several actresses who came forward accusing Steven Seagal of sexually harassing her. "What carnage and sexual trauma?") And lit agents and managers, who typically have their finger on the pulse of what is in demand at the majors, are telling their clients, "Not now," when it comes to overtly sexual material. ("With this current climate, I don't think the appetite is ripe," says one.) Even the indies — long the bastion of edgy material — are getting skittish. A24 was poised to begin production in February on a $5 million James Franco-produced stripper/prostitute travelogue titled Zola Tells All (complete with a 15-year-old Russian prostitute), but it is currently described by an A24 spokesperson as "in development."
The pendulum is swinging so far, some fear, that it will create artistic repercussions.
"There may be a concern in this zero tolerance climate that creativity and creative opportunity could be restrained because individuals may become unwilling to put themselves in situations that could be misinterpreted or misconstrued in the creative process," says Marc Simon, an entertainment attorney who produced After Innocence, about wrongful conviction, but also advocated for his clients like sexual-assault doc The Hunting Ground's Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering.
Even before Weinstein's epic fall in October, studios had become more wary of sex onscreen, given that China balks at such content (neither Fifty Shades of Grey nor Fifty Shades Darker was released in the all-important market) and onscreen copulation is a nonstarter in many places from the Middle East to Indonesia to India (the latter nixed Fifty Shades of Grey, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Magic Mike XXL).
Back in 2012, when Fifty Shades of Grey was optioned by Universal in a bidding war, the losing studios were clamoring for their own edgy property to rival EL James' best-selling trilogy. Sony nabbed L.S. Hilton's Maestra, which features a heroine with a penchant for X-rated sex, for producer Amy Pascal, but has more recently jettisoned the project to its TV division. Audrey Carlan's novel Calendar Girl, about a woman who becomes a high-priced escort to help pay off her father's gambling debts, was dubbed the next Fifty Shades but went straight to the small-screen development pool at ABC Signature.
"The studios and the financiers are going to be conscientious of putting something out there that could alienate audiences and restrict the potentiality of the film," says producer David Permut (Hacksaw Ridge), referring to both #MeToo and international box-office considerations. Permut, who made movies within the studio system for decades, couldn't find traditional financing for two of his upcoming films that deal with sexual storylines (I Am Chippendales with Ben Stiller and Dev Patel and Russ & Roger Go Beyond, which chronicles the unlikely friendship between sexploitation director Russ Meyer and film critic Roger Ebert, a Meyer devotee who wrote the screenplay for his Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). Instead, both are being financed independently.
As the studio film world becomes less welcoming of even a hint of sexual content, indie financiers like Bold Films, which is backing Chippendales, are picking up the slack, as are TV networks like HBO (porn industry drama The Deuce was renewed for a second season in September). Material that features empowered participants — like Maggie Gyllenhaal's prostitute turned entrepreneur Deuce protagonist — are particularly attractive in the post-Harvey environment. Chippendales and Russ & Roger also offer a spin on the victimized-female motif in their depictions of sexuality.
"[Meyer] was a feminist director," Permut explains. "There were strong women in his movies, and they were empowered. So I think there's an advantage in telling that story in this climate. Same for the Chippendales story. It's the birth of the first strip club exclusively for women."
And at least one writer, All the Money in the World's David Scarpa, is hoping to bring sexy back to the majors. He tells THR that his script for Sony's long-gestating Cleopatra remake will feature an old-school bacchanal. "Dirty, bloody, lots of people swearing and having sex and all of that," he says. "Just going the opposite direction from the way we think that movie is going to go."
And perhaps the opposite direction from the way the industry is going in general.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.