'Fifty Shades' Movies Whip Up Nearly Half a Billion in Profit

Universal Pictures
'Fifty Shades Freed'

The female-fueled series is one of the most profitable franchises in Universal's history.

Earlier this week, Fifty Shades Freed seduced audiences on Valentine's Day, grossing $10.8 million at the North American box office.

That was almost on par with last year's Valentine's Day haul of $11 million for the first sequel Fifty Shades Darker, signaling that many fans remain enthralled with the edgy sexual escapades of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), despite the fact that the E.L. James books upon which the film series is based have faded from the public eye.

Opening in theaters last weekend, Fifty Shades Freed quickly propelled the female-fueled film franchise past the $1 billion mark in ticket sales, giving Universal one of its most profitable film franchises in recent memory. Through Tuesday, the three movies have taken in a combined $1.145 billion.

Black Panther, which hits cinemas this weekend, will no doubt make life tough for the competition, but Fifty Shades Freed should still be able to clear $300 million by the end of its global run after already earning $196.3 million through Wednesday. That would push the franchise total to somewhere around $1.25 billion against a combined production budget of $150 million for all three films, excluding marketing costs. (The final two films were shot back to back.)

Universal — where Donna Langley and her team famously outbid several other studios in picking up the rights to James' books for $5 million in March 2012 — declined to comment on how much profit the Fifty Shades trilogy will generate in total for the studio, as well as for talent and producers with backend deals. Insiders, however, say profits could approach or clear $500 million, when factoring in box-office returns and ancillary revenue streams, such as home entertainment and television (studios get roughly half back in box-office receipts in North America and less overseas).

Langley was co-chairman of Universal Pictures at the time; in September 2013 she ascended to studio chairman. Focus Features, Universal's specialty division, was also involved in the effort to secure the rights from E.L. James. (Focus was then under the watch of James Schamus.)

"I think Universal did a very good job. First and foremost, it chose a global, popular literary franchise. Second, it kept the budgets reasonable. Third, it went with an attractive release date around Valentine's Day and marketed it as a romance series with a hint of eroticism, which played well with women," says Wall Street analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners.

Adds Universal domestic distribution chief Jim Orr, "we take great pride in providing films for distinct audiences. To grow a $1 billion franchise out of an adult-themed property is an extraordinary achievement," he says. He notes that many female franchises are comedic in nature, such as Universal's Bridget Jones or Pitch Perfect.

Two exceptions, of course, are Summit's Twilight and Lionsgate's Hunger Games series, as well as the budding Wonder Woman franchise. The five Twilight films earned north of $3.3 billion at the global box office, while the four Hunger Games pics took in nearly $3 billion.

Universal's other lucrative film franchises include Fast and the Furious, The Purge and Jurassic World.