Once upon a time, there was a movie called The Da Vinci Code. In the lead-up to said movie, which was based on author Dan Brown’s controversial fiction thriller of the same name, religious groups all across the world called for a boycott due to what some believed to be blasphemous claims in the story.
Though the book, and the subsequent film, focused on conspiracy theories aimed at the Catholic Church (and albinos), plenty of other Christian organizations felt that the book’s assertion that Jesus of Nazareth had a child was offensive to believers. (Even Mormons had something to say about it! But we weren’t too scandalized).
“Christian groups in countries as far away as South Korea, Thailand and India are infuriated by Dan Brown’s bestseller,” The Guardian’s Sam Jones and Mark Brown wrote in 2006. According to their reporting, Christian organizations all around the world, including the US, petitioned for government bans, threatened hunger strikes and sought other means to mobilize against the film’s release.
The Da Vinci Code grossed well over $200 million worldwide, ranking fifth overall at the box-office the year it was released and was followed up by a similarly successful sequel three years later.
So, about 50 Shades of Grey.
The film, which like The Da Vinci Code is based on a controversial bestselling book but does not star any albinos, has been hogging headlines for the past few weeks because concerned parents and what not have begun to call for boycotts just as promotion for the film hits critical mass. Or in other words, right on cue.
“Critics have described the book as misogynistic, pornographic, exploitative, sexually violent, and anti-romance – and there is little reason to expect the film will be anything different,” a petition hosted on LifeSiteNews reads. “This upcoming Valentine’s Day, join this movement by pledging to take a stand for true love and true romance. Together, let’s make 50 Shades the worst box-office flop in history.”
While such petitions are probably right (both liberals who think it has a damaging misogynistic message and conservatives that basically think it’s just porn have expressed outrage over the content of the book), the reality is negative hype like this will probably do more to boost the film’s success than any ad agency’s viral marketing campaign could, much like the case of The Da Vinci Code.
In fact it already has. Despite the boycotts, 50 Shades has already become the fastest selling R-rated movie in the history of Fandango.
This is no surprise, given the book’s history. Much like the movie, the book stirred up various boycotts and was even banned in numerous libraries. That didn’t stop it from outselling Harry Potter. In fact, it probably helped.
The controversy of the book helped propel it to crazy-level success. In the world of entertainment, you can’t do much better than creating a product that generates so much chatter that the average American feels pressure to read (or see) it just to feel in the loop. Advertising is hype, and hype is advertising.
“(50 Shades of Grey has) been parodied on ‘SNL’ and on the cover of Newsweek. Who wants to be left out of the conversation?” someone who got a kick out of the book told CNN in 2012. And they were right! People like to know what’s going on in SNL skits!
That’s why people that study consumer boycotts say to be careful selecting a targets, lest the whole thing backfire.
“Activists seeking to create corporate change are partly dependent on the conditions of the company they’re targeting,” Brayden King, an associate professor of Management and Organizations at Northwestern University concluded in his research on corporate Boycotts. “(The target) has to be vulnerable to change to have any transformative effect.”
When it comes to films that cost $40 million and are well past post-production stages, there’s little vulnerability to any actual change. Unless you make a movie that vilifies the Chinese, only to realize that that country has a lot of people in it who like American movies and don’t like to be vilified.
In fact, the business model of Hollywood makes judging the impact of boycotts pretty much impossible anyway. While breaking down the backlash to 2013’s Ender’s Game, a film that some gay rights advocates argued should be boycotted in response to statements made by the author of the book the film was based on (Orson Scott Card) and kind of underperformed at the box office, Buzzfeeed’s Adam B. Vary noted that “there is no way to know for certain how many people would have bought a ticket to Ender’s Game had the social politics of the story’s author not been at issue.”
Most movies, even the big bloated blockbusters, are a gamble and their success depends almost entirely on a single weekend. It’s possible, for instance, that a film such as Ender’s Game fell short of expectations because of a boycott, or because reviews were lukewarm and the subject matter was hard to market effectively (“even if Card had been the most pro-gay author on the planet, Ender’s Game was always going to be an unusual movie with which to launch a major franchise,” Vary observed).
Or maybe it was just because of Gavin Hood. Just Gavin.
It is also possible that boycotts helped the film overcome some of the other barriers, in a kind of ironic twist, allowing the controversy to provide a boost in otherwise limp interest.
The same could be said for 50 Shades of Grey. Much like Ender’s Game, studio heads are banking on the book’s popularity to do most of the heavy lifting as far as ticket sales go. But there are plenty of other factors that could end up working against it, factors that expected outrage could overshadow. (And outrage over overt sexuality is a lot easier to market than outrage over insensitive comments).
For one, the fact that the movie will shy away from much of the more controversial elements in the book has dominated recent discussion of the film. Apparently the people that liked the book were into all the weird stuff, and the studio wasn’t. So those looking forward to a salacious Edward-and-Bella-without-all-that-Mormon-restraint kinda night at the movies might have had waning interest, something the boycotts may have already overturned.
Also, erotic thrillers aren’t guaranteed moneymakers, not even close. Despite recurring attempts using all the classic methods (sequels, mostly) mainstream moviegoers have generally avoided big-budget smut since the end of the 1990s. The golden age of Paul Verhoeven is over.
In an age when major studios have largely defaulted to sequels and reboots out of fear of financial failure, studio execs have reason to doubt whether or not the middle-aged female demographic that devoured the book in such large numbers would be comfortable seeing the same content projected awkwardly in front of a hundred other people.
Buzz is half the battle in Hollywood success, and it seems the best bet Universal Studios had for assured publicity was hoping for ticket sales to feed off the public outrage.
Based on the film’s pre-release ticket sales, the tactic seems to have worked.