Is 'Fifty Shades' a Date Movie? Delay Prompts Valentine's Day Showdown

Dakota Johnson, left and Jamie Dornan

Universal's date switch pits racy sex against Nicholas Sparks movie "The Longest Ride" in 2015.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Last fall, novelist Nicholas Sparks said he was mildly interested in Fifty Shades of Grey but hadn't read EL James' explicit book about an S&M relationship. Now he might want to check it out.

Universal announced Nov. 13 that the Fifty Shades film's release will be pushed from Aug. 1, 2014, to Feb. 13, 2015, setting up a Valentine's Day face-off with The Longest Ride, based on Sparks' book. It's the first bold and risky move under Universal's new filmed entertainment chairman, Jeff Shell.

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"They want to turn it into a date movie," says Phil Contrino, chief analyst at "I don't know if guys really want to see Fifty Shades, but if they can pull it off, the box office will explode."

Valentine's Day also coincides with Presidents Day weekend, a lucrative moviegoing corridor. So far, the only other movie set to open then is Paramount's kids pic SpongeBob SquarePants 2.

Universal abandoned its original plan after Charlie Hunnam abruptly dropped out and was replaced by Jamie Dornan, who stars as Christian Grey opposite Dakota Johnson (the delayed release will no doubt allow Dornan to better prepare). August had been an obvious choice because female-skewing pics such as Sex and the City and Magic Mike were summer releases.

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But Universal argues that women might be more available in February than in August, when some are distracted by family vacations and back-to-school prep. Opening the $40 million-budgeted Fifty Shades in February also avoids the logjam created by the World Cup, running June 12 to July 13. Studios will delay some summer films until later in July and August, increasing competition. (In 2010, women made up more than 40 percent of the World Cup's massive TV audience.) Contrino says this argument has merit: "Exhibitors view Fifty Shades as something that could be huge globally, particularly in European countries, including Spain and the U.K. It's not just a North America thing."