July 24th, 2014 by Maria Minsker

There’s no denying it now–Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie, is happening. Unless you’ve been hiding from social media all day, you’ve probably heard that the trailer aired on the TODAY show this morning, with an exclusive “more risqué” version available online. The film, which (unsurprisingly) received an R rating is racy indeed, which begs the question–why bother releasing it in theaters at all?

As I interviewed sources for a story on interactive video as a marketing tool throughout this week, every conversation began the same way. “Online video is huge. On-demand video is exploding. The marketing opportunities are huge,” they told me. Online video platforms like Hulu and Netflix are generating and monetizing on this demand, launching original series and original films or documentaries exclusively online on an on-demand basis. And they’re often experiencing a great deal of success. Just look at Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. It’s a major hit. With growing pressure from the MPAA to censor violence and sex in movies (though they tend to be more lenient with violence, but who’s counting?), isn’t it time for the film industry to follow suit?

A borderline pornographic film like Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t exactly have mainstream appeal. No, it’s not for everyone–many find it downright offensive, but what makes it an interesting case study, in my opinion, is its niche appeal. Marketing to the masses has pretty much become obsolete, and yet the film industry desperately continues to try and fit a square peg into a round hole. Movie producer Adi Shankar put it well in this post for Quora:

“The fundamental flaw in movie marketing is that it’s both very costly, and inefficient at matching a movie with its target audience. To be clear, this mattered less when movies had astronomical budgets, and were ostensibly produced for the mass market. However, the future of the movie business lies in niche markets – not in generalized mass appeal. Audiences are growing tired of the recycled, bloated, arbitrary, homogenized movie franchises to which their cinematic taste buds have become numb.”

So what are producers to do? When they’re working on a niche project that’s guaranteed to make serious bank like the Fifty Shades film, taking it online could be a promising approach. Making the film less racy won’t win over new audiences that have already made up their minds about the franchise, but it may lose some loyal fans that would rather skip the film than risk being disappointed. Everyone has been tip-toeing around making, marketing, and even seeing this film, so maybe it’s time to eliminate the drama by skipping the big screen. Something to think about for the next two films in the trilogy, if they’re even going to bother making those.

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