'Fifty Shades' Nets $94.4M in North American Debut

By Features Dow Jones Newswires

The competition had no choice but to submit to "Fifty Shades of Grey."

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The erotic romance movie easily took the top spot at the box office, collecting an estimated $94.4 million over the long holiday weekend. The adaptation of E L James's publishing phenomenon about an undergraduate (played by Dakota Johnson) who enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with a mysterious billionaire (Jamie Dornan)--was among the most-anticipated releases of the year.

It is rare to find source material that is as surefire as "Fifty Shades." The three-book series, originally self-published by the author in 2011, has sold more than 100 million copies and seems to have generated just as many discussions, introducing the world of sadomasochism to readers around the world.

Many critics pillaged the film, and audiences were mixed, too--"Fifty Shades" received a C+ grade from weekend moviegoers, according to the CinemaScore market research firm. Yet "Fifty Shades" set the record for a Valentine's Day weekend release; about 68% of opening-weekend moviegoers were women.

Comcast Corp.'s Universal Pictures won a Hollywood race for the film rights to the series, and adaptations of the next two book installments are expected. The studio promoted the film with an ad campaign that asked moviegoers, "Curious?"--a marketing push that made the film available "to the widest audience possible," said Nick Carpou, Universal's president of domestic distribution. The combination of a well-known story and the Valentine's Day weekend made the debut a "perfect storm" for the release to be treated like a cultural event, said Mr. Carpou.

The film features several graphic sex scenes and has been banned in a couple of international markets that have turned away risqué titles in the past. It still collected an additional $172 million overseas. "Fifty Shades" had a budget of $40 million.

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There was good news to spare in Hollywood this weekend, with two movies benefiting from "Fifty Shades" counterprogramming. "Kingsman: The Secret Service," a spy comedy starring Colin Firth, made its debut in second place with a solid $42 million. Audiences gave "Kingsman" a B+, according to CinemaSHYScore.

The children's movie "SpongeBob SquarePants: Sponge Out of Water" held strong in its second week, grossing $40 million for a total $103 million. And "American Sniper" continued its phenomenal run, taking in $19.5 million for a cumulative $307.2 million.

The overall weekend box-office continued to improve upon last year's receipts. Year-to-date box office is up more than 10% compared with 2014, according to the box-office tracker Rentrak Corp.