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E.L. James Making Unprecedented Demands for Film Rights to 'Fifty Shades of Grey'

Bids from studios and producers due Friday; HBO turned down early offer.

Fifty Shades of Grey Cover - P 2012

E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey novels may be looking for a studio master, but in a shocking twist, the author is demanding to remain in the dominatrix role.

The latest publishing sensation, James’ erotic trilogy -- being referred to as “mommy porn” -- has drawn swelling interest from many of the biggest buyers in Hollywood, who want to transform the books into the latest female-driven movie franchise. But the demands of James and her literary agent, Valerie Hoskins, have caused more than one bidder to use the safe word. Sources say the ask is very far-reaching and nearly unprecedented, though one notes that it wouldn’t be completely unheard-of for a book that had actually been published.

The full three-book story, which includes Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, details the erotic relationship between a damaged young billionaire and a naive female college graduate. Inspired by the Edward and Bella characters in Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling Twilight novels, James’ story originally was posted online as fan fiction, before web interest led to an Australian publisher distributing them. Random House division Vintage Books picked up U.S. publishing rights to the trilogy March 10. Recently released in ebook format, Grey shot to the top of the New York Times and Amazon best-selling ebook lists, and Vintage plans to publish a paperback edition April 17.

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Among the contract requests are approval of director, writer, cast, locations, screenplay, marketing materials, trailers and more. James, a former London TV executive, and Hoskins have been fielding comprehensive film-adaptation pitches for weeks. [UPDATED:] HBO originally heard the pitch from Hoskins in January but passed, while New Regency chairman Arnon Milchan reportedly put in a $3 million pre-emptive bid that James and Hoskins refused to hear along with an equally large pre-emptive bid from Sony (the author and her agent were declining to field early bids, and New Regency and Sony remain possible homes for the property). March 23 is the deadline for final bids from producers and studios.

The provocative material involves the touchy dynamic of a younger woman submitting sexually to a somewhat older man via S&M techniques. The graphic sexual nature of the books, which is driving appeal among female readers, is precisely the element that makes a successful film adaptation difficult because everyone seems to agree that the kinkier sexual elements are essential to its appeal and would have to play a large part in the movies.

One industry veteran expresses skepticism that women have the same desire to see the racier material as they do to read it, while another looks to the challenging violence in The Hunger Games as a template. "You have to go with [the sex],” this person says. “Hunger Games is all about kids killing kids, and you have to show that.”

Still, as the MPAA rating board has shown with ample precedent, violence gets a pass that sex never does in terms of more restrictive ratings. Even with an R rating rather than NC-17, there is very little potential for box-office numbers of the Twilight and Hunger Games variety.

One of the bidders says James’ trilogy certainly has movie potential but that all three books have to be read and considered for that to be clear, and possibly condensed to just two movies. "It's a love story,” the bidder says. “It's definitely female-oriented.”

Although the sellers are asking for exceptional control, one source says that a buyer can still impose limits by ensuring that the author doesn't get paid until, and unless, the process moves along.