The Review — 02/02/2015 at 12:37

Shops Prepare for Tie-Ins to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Film

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When toys are made for movies, they are usually intended for children.

But with the Valentine’s Day weekend premiere of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” many of the tie-ins to the film are for adults only.

The sex toy industry is banking on the hope that the Universal Pictures film will generate soaring sales, much the way the blockbuster erotic novel of the same name created thousands of new customers from the female readers who passed the book around their suburban culs-de-sac.

In anticipation of such keen interest, mainstream retailers are stocking up on the pleasure industry’s blindfolds, whips, handcuffs and masks. Manufacturers have designed new packaging and products to fit the kinky tone and theme of the film, which is based on E. L. James’s story about a naïve young woman’s introduction to games of sexual bondage.

Even Target, one of the nation’s largest retailers, recently began selling an official “Fifty Shades of Grey” “vibrating love ring,” an item intended for wear by men, but not on the finger.

“It is the biggest moment for our industry in popular culture pretty much ever,” said Claire Cavanah, a co-founder of Babeland, an adult novelty retailer. “We’re all sort of preparing for what could be another wave of toys.”

Ms. James’s sexually charged trilogy — two followed “Fifty Shades of Grey” — became a cultural phenomenon, and turned Ms. James into something of a legend.

She sold the publishing rights to Vintage Books, a division of Random House, and soon reached even more readers who may never have normally read erotic fiction.

Last year, Vintage Books announced that it had sold 100 million copies of the series. Ms. James, a middle-aged British mother and former television producer, was credited with introducing the concept of BDSM (standing for, loosely: bondage/discipline, domination/submission, sadism/masochism) into the mainstream vernacular.

She also ignited a huge bidding war in Hollywood. Executives vied for a chance to pitch Ms. James and her literary agent, Valerie Hoskins, on how best to tell the story of Anastasia Steele, a virginal 21-year-old student who becomes the submissive sexual partner to Christian Grey, a successful 27-year-old businessman.

Universal Studios and Focus Features eventually won, and agreed to pay $5 million for the rights to make the film.

The studio wanted to capitalize on the same readers — and others — who sent sales of adult products skyrocketing after “Fifty Shades of Grey” had its debut as an e-book in 2011. Suddenly, retailers had trouble keeping once-obscure products in stock. The novel spurred a 7.5 percent jump in sales of sex-themed products, including toys, videos and books, in 2013, according to a report from the research firm IBISWorld.

“We were kind of taken by surprise when the book came out,” Ms. Cavanah said. “But we’re much more prepared for the movie.”

The movie will not be as graphic as the book. Neal Slateford, a co-founder ofLovehoney, the only company that has the rights to make the official “Fifty Shades of Grey” adult products sold in Target and elsewhere, does not expect certain toys used in the book’s steamiest scenes to appear in the movie.

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In an interview, Mr. Slateford said that his brand would not be featured in the film either, although some of the tamer products themselves could be.

“I think that the movie will reignite sales of the book, which could boost sales,” he said.

Adult-toy experts say it’s difficult to provide an accurate estimate of sales or specific items inspired by the book. But they do point to a few things.

The novel includes one particularly graphic scene involving Ben Wa Balls, also known as Kegel balls, an item that retailers had for years largely promoted as a sexual health product for women, especially after giving birth.

Sales of the balls immediately spiked. The large sex product manufacturerCalifornia Exotic Novelties, which used to sell 80,000 to 90,000 each year, sold one million in the six months after the book’s debut, according to its president and chief executive, Susan Colvin.

“There was a worldwide shortage of pleasure balls, literally,” said Mr. Slateford, the co-founder of Lovehoney. “Knowing that those aren’t going to be in the movie, I wouldn’t expect to be selling a huge amount of those.”

The sex toy industry is largely private, and not just culturally. Financial data is difficult to find because so few companies are publicly held.

Some experts, like Sara Ramirez, the associate publisher for retailing for theadult entertainment trade publication XBIZ, agree that Americans buy somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion worth of pleasure products annually. A more conservative estimate from IBISWorld pegged that number at $610 million in 2013 and projected it to grow to $792 million by 2018.

Since only Lovehoney can officially use the “Fifty Shades of Grey” name, others have been forced to get creative. Pipedream Products, which makes sex toys and novelties, redesigned some of its packaging with a gray-and-black color scheme from the movie.

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California Exotic Novelties broadened its line of “Scandal” restraints when the movie’s trailer came out in July.

And Jimmyjane, known for its vibrators, is taking its first foray into “soft goods” with a new set of fetish kits inspired by the film that include items like blindfolds and silk ties.

“I would say that every single person has jumped on the bandwagon in terms of making toys around ‘Fifty Shades,’ ” Ms. Ramirez, the XBIZ publisher, said.

Babeland has added 20 new items in anticipation of the movie’s release on Feb. 13. Lovehoney’s “Grey”-themed vibrator is among the best sellers. California Exotic Novelties ordered 10 times its normal amount of inventory for the six months surrounding the film.

Lovehoney products even made their way into Target in December, where its line of “Fifty Shades of Grey” candles, lubricant and blindfolds upset some parents a few weeks ago at a store where some items were stocked right next to Captain America toothbrushes.

But while these companies do not want to miss an opportunity to capitalize on the film, they don’t want to overestimate demand, either.

Babeland still has some items left over from when it rushed to increase supplies in 2012. The company has been a bit more conservative this time around, and says that the items tied to the movie represent about 5 percent of all new products.

“My personal opinion is that there’s going to be a sharp spike and then it’s going to tail off rather quickly,” said Nick Orlandino, the chief executive of Pipedream Products.

There are cultural concerns, too. The book may have drawn a niche erotic practice into the spotlight, but some critics also saw a male protagonist who pressured his lover in a way BDSM enthusiasts say is antithetical to what should be a consensual relationship.

Those misconceptions, some say, could also extend to sex toys. And manufacturers don’t want customers with unrealistic expectations to be disappointed with their products.

“A lot of the ways they describe the toys and the products in the book, E.L. James didn’t get quite right,” Ms. Colvin said. “Using kegel balls is not too much fun, it’s actually hard work to do it right.”

The New York Times

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