'Fifty Shades of Grey' Film Adaptation Faces Challenge From 'Control-Freak' Author

Universal and Focus pay $5 million for E.L. James' racy books amid questions of how S&M sex will translate onscreen.

Now that Universal has prevailed in fevered bidding for the erotic trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey, some in Hollywood are pondering not only whether the graphic books really can be made into a successful movie but also how many of the author's extraordinary demands for control were met by the studio.

According to an informed source, Universal -- driven by the passion of co-chairman Donna Langley -- anted up $5 million for rights to the three E.L. James novels, which have yet to be published other than as e-books. The studio emerged victorious after a March 9 article in The New York Times about the viral success of the "mommy porn" books led to a frenzy among studios including Warner Bros., Paramount and Sony. James is now said to be set on finding a female producer who will devote herself full time to the potential franchise about ingenue Anastasia Steele's sexual adventures with a jaded billionaire, as David Heyman did with the Harry Potter books.

(Apparently, the desire to put the films into the hands of a woman was bad news for producers Scott Stuber and Brian Grazer, who work through Universal and had hoped to be involved. Among those who pursued the project are Crazy, Stupid, Love producer Denise Di Novi and Lionsgate executive Alli Shearmur.)

The fortysomething James had astonished some in Hollywood with a list of unprecedented demands for the right to approve -- not just consult on -- wardrobe, location and even supporting cast as well as marketing and trailers (in addition to stars, writer, director and producer). Through her London-based agent, Valerie Hoskins, she also asked for the right to put the kibosh on a second movie if she was dissatisfied with the first. "This makes me sound like a control freak, doesn't it?" James joked to EW.com.

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Universal declined to discuss terms of its deal, but an executive at a company that wasn't involved in the bidding says if the studio yielded, "Who are they going to get to direct that doesn't get to pick the sets and the costume designer?"

Others expressed doubt that Universal gave in to the demands. "No studio gives up that kind of stuff," says one producer who did not bid. But even if the studio didn't give her control on paper, James -- a former television executive who appears to have a strong desire for creative control -- will have considerable clout as author of the wildly popular books. (Due to be released in hardcover in April, the books are already Nos. 3, 4 and 5 on Amazon.com's best-seller list.) In such situations, studios always want the author to be happy and supportive of the film. 

Sources say James was drawn to Universal because its Focus label has released respected films with charged sexual content -- such as Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution, which was rated NC-17. "Clearly, this author would like to be regarded as Edith Wharton. She does not want to be thought of as Danielle Steel or Jackie Collins," says one veteran producer. "The reason to go with Universal and Focus is very analogous to choosing a classy imprint within a larger [publishing] entity."

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But industry observers say it could be tricky to make the film true to the books but still acceptable to audiences who will have to watch the material in a theater rather than reading it on their iPads. (Given the books' sexual content and sadomasochistic sex scenes, a movie undoubtedly will draw an R rating.)

"Who knows what it will look like on the screen?" says one producer. "If you're not careful, it could turn into a Saturday Night Live skit. I don't want to say it's impossible [to make a successful version] because it's not, but it is challenging."

The good news for Universal, in this producer's view, is that the studio will not need a big budget or stars to play the two leads. The movie could easily be made for $30 million, he says, adding, "I could shoot this in your house, a restaurant and a store -- though I'd have to turn one room of your house into the Red Room of Pain."



Ari's Lunch, Interrupted

How hot was the courtship of Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James? Hot enough that WME's Ari Emanuel took a meeting with James and her agent, Valerie Hoskins, even though he was expecting a call from the U.S. president. Protocol is that when told to anticipate a call from the leader of the free world, one remains at one's desk. But Emanuel took the meeting at Soho House with manager-producer Stephen Levinson, representing Mark Wahlberg. James had a "no phones on the table" rule, but Emanuel said he was expecting an important call -- which came. (Obama was touching base with one of his backers.) A source says Emanuel waxed enthusiastic about Fifty Shades, prompting Obama to say that the first lady had enjoyed the book. A source close to Obama says the president was kidding and, no, Michelle has not read the steamy saga. WME declined comment.