Sex sells: 50 shades of green

50 shades of green
50 shades of green

Universal's "50 Shades of Grey" is breaking all sorts of records, and it hasn't even opened in theaters yet. The racy, R-rated film, based on the best-selling novel by E.L. James, is on track for a blockbuster Valentine's Day weekend; it could even gross as much as $60 million dollars at the U.S. box office, which would be a new record.

It would also be a huge win for Universal, which spent a reported $40 million to produce the film, and tens of millions of dollars more to promote and release it on over 3,600 screens, with a marketing campaign nearly three years in the making designed to target both women and couples. The film's Facebook page has 8.26 million "likes" and counting. Author E.L. James has 2.1 million Facebook likes.

"Lately movies have been over-performing ('Sponge Bob' and 'American Sniper' are good examples) so record numbers would not be a shock for the film," said Rentrak Senior Media Analyst Paul Dergarabedian. Over a week before the film opened, it was Fandango's fastest-selling R-rated title in the company's 15-year history. And the film represented a full 60 percent of Fandango's ticket sales—nine days before it opens in theaters.

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But the film is proving to be a phenomenon far larger than any general box office trend. There are hundreds of sold-out screenings, prompting the addition of hundreds of new showings. And Imax just came on board, announcing the large screen theaters will release the film on 75 screens this weekend. Perhaps most surprising are the stats on where demand is the strongest: Fandango reports that the top ten states with much larger-than-expected pre-sales are all in the South and Midwest, regions which generally refuse to book racy NC-17 films.

Harriet Taylor | CNBC

This full-blown frenzy for the film is sure to prompt all the Hollywood studios to look for more racy fare to target to that huge audience of women and couples on dates. If the film lives up to heightened expectations, a sequel will surely follow.

And while the film steams up the box office, retailers are also getting on board, in a way they never have before. Licensed movie merchandise usually refers to kids' toys. For "50 Shades of Grey" it's adult toys, like blindfolds and massage candles. This is the first time such a racy movie has inspired branded merchandise.

Target is selling an assortment of "50 Shades" themed products in its stores "Adult Health Area" as well as on Target.com, from blindfolds, to massage oil, to sex toys. The company suffered some backlash when one store put a "50 Shades" display next to kids toothbrushes, a photo of which went viral on Twitter. Target responded to the criticism, noting it puts the products in the back of an aisle, and that the products are not exclusive to Target.

2015 perfect box office year: Pro
2015 perfect box office year: Pro

There's a wide range of branded products, like an official makeup collection from Make Up Forever, branded wines (Red Satin and White Silk), and an official jewelry line, including a $150 necklace with mini handcuffs. Plus Hot Topic sells branded stockings, and Tesco-owned F&F has a line of lingerie. The Vermont Teddy Bear company even has a bear fashioned after Christian Grey, the male lead in the film and books.

And some are even cashing in without officially licensing the film. Bay Area boutique hotel chain Personality Hotels is offering a $150 add-on package for visitors with what it calls a "discreet box of goodies" in its hotel room.

And the better the film does at the box office, the more it's likely to drive sales of related merchandise.

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