“Fifty Shades of Grey,” an erotic film criticized by reviewers, drew eager fans of the steamy novel it’s based on and set box-office records for Valentine’s Day and the Presidents Day weekend.
The R-rated picture, from Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures, opened with sales of $81.7 million from Friday to Sunday in the U.S. and Canada, researcher Rentrak Corp. said in an e-mailed statement. Forecasters say it may reach $95 million over the extended Presidents Day weekend.
“Fifty Shades” benefited from Valentine’s Day falling over a holiday weekend, along with deft marketing and reviews that, while criticizing its sadomasochistic theme, stoked the interest of moviegoers. It’s already the fastest-selling R-rated film, according to ticket seller Fandango.com, and is boosting prospects for a record-breaking 2015 for cinema owners.
“Controversy sells,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at Rentrak, said in a telephone interview. “Everyone was talking about this movie. The fact is it was a perfect release date and very well marketed. Audiences got a vicarious thrill reading the books and now from seeing the film.”
The film, based on the first of a series of novels that have sold more than 100 million copies, had already opened in first place in Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Mexico and Russia, according to Universal. Combined with the U.S. estimated three-day sales, the worldwide total for the movie is $239.7 million so far, according to a statement from Universal.
The studio, which is marketing and distributing the picture for its Focus Features production unit, looks to profit handsomely based on the picture’s modest budget of $40 million. While Boxoffice.com had forecast sales of $95 million through Monday, the studio was predicting a more conservative $50 million-plus.
“Everybody here at Universal is absolutely celebrating the extraordinary result,” said Nick Carpou, Universal’s president of domestic distribution, in a telephone interview. “We knew it was a hot item and it has more than delivered on its promise.”
“Fifty Shades” stars Jamie Dornan as Seattle billionaire Christian Grey and Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele, a college student, and follows their sometimes violent sexual relationship.
After their first chance meeting, Grey becomes obsessed with and stalks Steele, trying to convince her to sign a contract to become his submissive sex slave. As they grow closer, his extreme sexual tastes intrigue and perturb Steele.
Universal released the drama in 3,646 North American theaters, as well as simultaneously in almost all markets worldwide. It was banned in some countries.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” is directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and produced by Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti, along with E.L. James who wrote the book. The screenplay for the film was written by Kelly Marcel, whose credits include “Saving Mr. Banks.”
The film set opening records for Presidents Day weekend, beating the $56.3 million high set by “Valentine’s Day” in 2010, and marked the biggest debut for Valentine’s Day weekend by topping the $58 million for “Hannibal” in 2001, according to Rentrak.
The picture also set the second-biggest total for a February premiere, behind Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” That controversial picture, about the last hours of Jesus’ life, opened with $83.9 million in 2004, according to Rentrak.
That’s despite -- or because of -- poor reviews, racy content, calls for boycotts and protests by women’s rights activists who say the film glamorizes domestic violence and sexual abuse. Just 26 percent of critics rated “Fifty Shades” favorably, according to Rottentomatoes.com, which aggregates their reports.
“Amazing b.o. take for 50 Shades,” billionaire Rupert Murdoch commented in a twitter post. “Cinemas full of middle aged women’s groups. But anecdotal evidence they all disappointed!”
According to Universal, 58 percent of the moviegoers were at least 25 years old, and 68 percent were female.
If the reviews were mostly critical, they also talked up its charms, with Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times calling the actors “pleasing and well-matched.”
A.O. Scott of the New York Times labeled it “terrible,” yet wrote, “it might nonetheless be a movie that feels good to see, whether you squirm or giggle or roll your eyes or just sit still and take your punishment.”
Critics had a more favorable take on 21st Century Fox Inc.’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” the only other new film to open this weekend.
The R-rated action feature placed second with Friday to Sunday sales of $35.6 million. The film is expected to bring in $35 million through Monday, according to Boxoffice.com, against a production budget of $81 million.
Based upon the acclaimed comic book and directed by Matthew Vaughn, “Kingsman” features a secret spy group that recruits a street kid into the agency’s ultra-competitive training program just as a global threat emerges from a twisted tech genius. Colin Firth stars as Harry Hart, who takes the rookie under his wing.
The film co-stars Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in the “Star Wars” movies. Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Caine are also featured.
“Kingsman” garnered 70 percent positive reviews, according to Rottentomatoes.com.
Weekend sales for the top 10 films totaled $191.6 million, a 23 percent increase from a year earlier. Sales for the year to date have climbed 11 percent to $1.45 billion, Rentrak said.