'Fifty Shades of Grey' Sex Toys in Sales Frenzy
Branded whips, wine and classical music see a spike as one sex-toy maker triples profits and author EL James (but not Universal) rakes in $66 million a year, based largely on a bondage bonanza.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
EL James' red room is filled with green. In the nearly three years since her Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy became a steamy phenomenon, selling more than 100 million copies worldwide, James has made a handful of licensing partnerships that have skyrocketed the worth of her brand. Now, as the film adaptation opens Feb. 13, merchandisers are enjoying whipped-up sales.
U.K.-based Lovehoney's Fifty Shades of Grey sex-toy collection — based on items from the books, including handcuffs, riding crops, feather ticklers, spanking paddles and blindfolds — became one of the fastest-selling adult product lines in Europe after it launched in fall 2012. Demand for "Inner Goddess" silver pleasure balls was so high that the British company sold out based solely on preorders.
"A lot of the items that you would not expect to be big sellers to mainstream audiences have actually proved to be very successful," says Lovehoney co-owner Neal Slateford. "We had no idea, for instance, that nipple clamps would be so popular."
Lovehoney profits tripled from $1.1 million the year before to $3.39 million by January 2014. Since its launch and expansion into the U.S. (including Target) in April 2013, the Fifty Shades pleasure collection — now comprising more than 50 products — has sold an estimated 1.2 million units worldwide, and Lovehoney expects the movie to boost profits another 40 percent in 2015.
U.K.-based lingerie designer Bluebella similarly is orgasmic. The company began selling Fifty Shades lingerie in 2013 and now has three collections (each about 24 pieces). A new six-piece Fifty Shades of Grey Black Label, featuring more bondage-themed items, launched ahead of the film's release. "Valentine's Day is the busiest time of the year for Bluebella along with Christmas, so the timing of the movie's release is perfect," says founder Emily Bendell.
But it's not only about sex when it comes to Fifty Shades products. There's also a jewelry collection, clothing line, body lotions, a signature wine and even a teddy bear. Fifty Shades of Grey — The Classical Album, a collection of music inspired by the film, has sold 93,000 copies in the U.S. since its release in 2012, according to Nielsen Music. It spent 24 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Traditional Classical Albums chart. And more than 200,000 copies of the Fifty Shades of Grey Party Board Game from Imagination Games have been sold since the "Inner Goddess" game launched. Australian entrepreneur Shane Yeend was denied the licensing deal twice before flying to the U.K. to personally meet with James to pitch her the game.
The British author's company, Fifty Shades Ltd., earned a stunning $66.1 million in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2013, according to tax papers filed in the U.K. Licensing agreements were cited as one of the main sources that led to "a very successful year." In her film deal with Universal, James, 51, kept the licensing and gaming rights, so the studio gets none of that revenue. Her licensing agent, the U.K.'s CopCorp, has been inundated with requests (especially companies seeking to reach female buyers), but James treads carefully before making a deal, say sources. She's limited licenses to about 15 companies — and, as she did with the film, she oversees every aspect of the products and isn't afraid to demand changes.
When she first saw the Christian Grey teddy bear, which hit stores in January for $89, she was quick to correct a mistake: The prototype's eyes were blue, but Christian Grey's eyes are in fact gray. "It was important that the product was authentic and true to the Christian Grey character," says Bill Shouldice, CEO of The Vermont Teddy Bear Co., who expects that the limited-edition bear (which holds a mask in one hand and handcuffs in the other) will sell out for Valentine's Day.
Without licensing rights, Universal has set up short promotional partnerships with O.P.I., Make Up For Ever and Audi. But James had final say on those products as well. "She was particular about the different glitter and micas the shades had and that the shades matched the emotions of the movie," says OPI co-founder Suzi Weiss-Fischmann about the nail polish line, which launched in January and features such names as My Silk Tie and Cement the Deal. "And she wanted names that were sophisticated and intriguing to match the tone of her book."
Now that the movie is arriving, merchandise numbers likely will hit new heights. Greek cosmetics company Fortis Venusta has noticed stronger demand lately, says owner Liza Meier. The Fifty Shades of Grey Fine Jewelry collection sold more in volume in the last quarter of 2014 than it had any quarter in the past two years. And winemaker Mark Beaman, whose Fifty Shades wine has sold more than half a million bottles of the Red Satin and White Silk blends, says, "Now that the movie has been getting a lot of attention, that kind of attention definitely trickles down to us."