It's no secret in Hollywood that sex sells when it comes to marketing provocative films.
Studios over the years have made big money with movies including "Basic Instinct," "Fatal Attraction" and even "Sex and the City." But with "Fifty Shades of Grey," the marketing team at Universal Pictures had a tricky assignment: how to present a movie that delves into the realm of sadomasochism.
In a carefully calibrated campaign more than two years in the making, the Universal team tried to sidestep stigmas and attract moviegoers who might otherwise be turned off. Billboards, film trailers and online games were scrutinized. Even the selection of colors (gray and black), music (Beyoncé) and the movie's Valentine's Day weekend release was intended to make a statement.
The result was a marketing campaign that was classy and not too revealing, and designed to woo both women and men to the $40-million film adaptation of the bestselling E.L. James book. Box-office experts are predicting that the film, which opens Friday, could set a record for Presidents Day weekend.
"Universal had to walk a tightrope by being edgy and erotic without being sleazy and inaccessible," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at the measurement firm Rentrak. "This is a movie that by its very nature had to be toned down to be acceptable to the general public."
"Fifty Shades" tells the story of a young billionaire's quest to dominate an inexperienced college student who catches his eye. The movie was fashioned as a modern-day fairy tale of a young woman, Anastasia Steele, who falls for a man she thinks is her Prince Charming, only to discover his dark side.
The story electrified the publishing world in 2011 when James, a British television executive turned novelist, released "Fifty Shades of Grey" as an e-book. She quickly turned out two follow-up books and signed on with a major publisher. The three books have been translated into 52 languages and together have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.
In March 2012, Universal won an aggressive bidding war for the film rights after James met with Donna Langley, now Universal Pictures' chairman, during a trip to Los Angeles. The two bonded over tea; Langley is a native of Britain's Isle of Wight. The studio immediately set out to understand the book's appeal and figure out ways to lure a mainstream audience that might be uncomfortable with the racy content — without disappointing the legions of fans of James' books.
The studio asked the question: Why were the books so popular? Their research uncovered some surprising findings. Readers heard about the book from friends and they wanted to see what all of the excitement was about. They bought the book because they were intrigued by its titillating story line, but kept on reading to follow the relationship between fictional businessman Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele.
"Women read books like this to make sense of their contemporary lives," said Melissa Click, an assistant professor in media at the University of Missouri. Nearly two years ago she interviewed three dozen women who had read the book as part of her own research project.
"The women started out reading these books for the sex, but they stayed for the romance," Click said.
Universal crafted a marketing strategy designed to appeal to three distinct audiences. They sought to engage the fans of the book, "capture the curious" and then "seduce the skeptics," according to an executive familiar with the effort.
Billboards and bus advertisements tease potential moviegoers with a one-word question: "Curious?" Some of the ads show the Grey character, played by Jamie Dornan, looking out over the Seattle skyline. Other shots show the couple embracing, with the arms of Anastasia, played by Dakota Johnson, seemingly tied high above her head.
The marketers also used a color palette known for sophistication — grays and black — to give the film a sleek and classy feel. Universal recruited singer Beyoncé, who remixed her hit song "Crazy in Love" for the film, in part because Beyoncé "owns her sexuality," according to an executive involved in the process.
The movie originally was scheduled to arrive in theaters last summer. But Universal shifted the release date to Valentine's Day weekend, which coincides with the long Presidents Day weekend.
Jeff Shell, who became chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment in fall 2013, told his bosses in New York that the new release date would give the studio a built-in marketing hook and increase the film's money-making potential. The thinking was that men would be more inclined to let their wife or girlfriend pick the movie they would see on Valentine's Day.
The studio also charted an online plan to ratchet up the buzz. It released the first scenes from the movie a year ago. Several trailers, which started appearing in July, have scored more than 200 million views on YouTube and Facebook.
Universal accelerated its marketing efforts last fall, creating digital fan experiences such as an online tour of the main character's Seattle penthouse apartment. The studio also hired a Los Angeles marketing firm, AdGreetz, to create personalized emails and send them to 600,000 people in more than 30 countries, including Mexico, Brazil and Russia.
AdGreetz founder Eric Frankel said his firm recorded 2,800 names so that recipients could click on a link and hear their name spoken by a character from the movie, followed by the words "Mr. Grey will see you now."
The marketing blitz appears to be paying off for Universal: "Fifty Shades of Grey" is expected to generate at least $60 million in ticket sales during in its first four days in theaters, according to pre-release audience surveys.
That kind of box-office return could set a record for a Presidents Day weekend. The reigning champion is "Valentine's Day," a PG-13 film that earned $63.1 million during the 2010 Presidents Day weekend.
"Fifty Shades" also ranks as the fastest-selling R-rated movie in the 15-year history of Fandango, which sells tickets for 25,000 screens across the country. Both Fandango and Universal are owned by parent NBCUniversal.
Because of the R rating, the film won't draw on the support of teenagers, who are among the most faithful moviegoers. But the film is expected to possibly surpass the nearly $57 million reached by "Sex and the City," which also was rated R, during its first three days in theaters in 2008.
Theater chains across the country have even added screens and arranged special Valentine's Day promotions. Cinépolis in Thousand Oaks is selling a Valentine's Loveseat Package on Valentine's Day, which includes two tickets, a bottle of "Fifty Shades of Grey" wine, a blanket and a dessert to share.
Retailers also are getting into the act, including retail giant Target, which offers "Fifty Shades" branded blindfolds and massage oils. The Vermont Teddy Bear company is pitching a Christian Grey Bear that wears a tailored suit, complete with the signature necktie, and handcuffs.
"I think sales of neckties will go up," Dergarabedian of Rentrak said.
Times staff writer Saba Hamedy contributed to this report.