Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson are not the reason why Fifty Shades of Grey was a hit and the fanbase has no real attachment to them for a second installment.
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are politely requested a massive raise for their participation in Fifty Shades Darker. That’s the gist of yesterday’s news and it shouldn’t be much of a surprise. There is a long history of somewhat unknown stars anchoring big franchises and then netting big paydays for the sequels. Jennifer Lawrence got $500,000 for Lions Gate Entertainment’s The Hunger Games but $10m for Catching Fire. Daniel Radcliffe eventually netted around $20m a pop for the last two Harry Potter films while Kristen Stewart became the biggest-earning actress in 2012 mostly due to her paydays for the last couple Twilight films. And without going into details, Robert Downey Jr. earned a tiny bit more for Walt Disney’s Iron Man 3 than he did for Paramount/Viacom Inc.’s Iron Man. So it would stand to reason that Johnson and Dornan, who got $250k a piece plus bonuses for the first film, are in pretty solid bargaining positions when the time comes to renegotiate their contracts. Fifty Shades of Grey has earned $528m worldwide on a $40m budget. But how much of that is due to its leading actors? Those who made Fifty Shades of Grey into a smash went because of the subject matter, the source material, and the controversy. The characters and the actors playing them were beside the point. In terms of the need for returning cast members, Fifty Shades of Grey is less Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl and more Tron: Legacy.
Now before we get into this, I would like to state I personally hope that Dornan and Johnson in-fact get a substantial raise for their participation in the sequel. To the extent that the film works at all beyond a titillating curiosity, it is because of their relatively solid work and Taylor-Johnson’s direction. It is all-but-certain that director Sam Taylor-Johnson is not coming back, and I would speculate that the gossipy tidbits regarding on-set squabbles with author E.L. James were about casting off blame if the film had gotten savaged by critics. If it can be helped, I imagine that Universal/Comcast Corp. would like to maintain as much continuity as possible for the three-film franchise and if rumors of E.L. James demanding to write the screenplay for the sequel turn out to be true, then Johnson and Dornan deserve whatever they demand for agreeing to show up again. But putting aside the “Fifty Shades was a huge hit, so of course they deserve massive paydays for the sequel” argument, the question becomes whether or not Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are actually worth a major increase in salary for their participation.
Keeping the core young cast of the Harry Potter films was of paramount importance (especially past the first few films) as part of the franchise’s eventual appeal came from watching Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint grow up before our eyes over a decade, but had one of the kids demanded a massive raise in the second or third film, they probably could have been replaced with minimal damage. That Chris Columbus cast the first film so perfectly, that all of the kids stuck around, and that all of them aged into strong actors and, um, visually pleasing young adults is something of a miracle for which Columbus does not get nearly enough credit, but that’s a conversation for another day. The reception of The Hunger Games was as much defined by Jennifer Lawrence’s iconic turn as Katniss Everdeen as it was by the film’s politically-charged action narrative and the book’s popularity. And yes Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart came to define their Edward/Bella characters to a generation of die-hard fans and were absolutely a key component of the franchise’s popularity from the first film onward. With all due respect, does anyone out there now feel that kind of attachment to the relative unknowns who played Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey?
Comparatively speaking, the two stars of Fifty Shades of Grey are less “Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark” and more “Michael Keaton as Batman.” Warner Bros./Time Warner Inc. offered Michael Keaton $15 million to reprise his role as the Caped Crusader in Batman Forever, but that he walked away for artistic reasons (after Warner Bros. dumped Tim Burton) and was replaced by Val Kilmer (for $3m). Said casting change was big news in the summer of 1994, but it made not one bit of difference with the financial reception of Batman Forever. Batman Returns opened with $46m in June of 1992. Batman Forever opened with $52m in June of 1995. You want to keep the cast intact and prevent disruptions but, precedent aside, the financial consequences would be minimal if Fifty Shades Darker went in front of the cameras with two entirely new actors in the starring roles. The recently announced Tron 3 doesn’t need a single returning actor or returning character either, but that’s a conversation for another day.
The irony is that the artistic weakness of Fifty Shades of Grey (the characters are relative blank slates) is the very thing that makes the actors (who did their damndest to elevate the material) expendable or at least at a disadvantage when negotiating the kind of pay raises that they perhaps expected the next time around. More so than perhaps any recent blockbuster in memory, those who flocked to Fifty Shades of Grey went purely for the subject matter, not for the characters or for the actors who played them. Brenden Fraser knew he was worth $12.5m for The Mummy Returns because said horror/action franchise was rooted in quirky characters as well as special effects (the first Mummy Returns teaser was so proud in its cast roll call about getting everyone back from the first film). But would anyone blink an eye if Sam Worthington ended up not reprising his role in a theoretical Avatar 2? Universal could arguably swap out an entirely new cast for each new installment and those who wanted to come see the bondage-infused erotic drama would show up just as excitedly as they did last month no matter which relatively unknown actors were playing the part this time.
Heck, Universal could even have the chutzpah to cast fan-favorite picks Matt Boomer and Alexis Bledel which would drum up an incredible amount of free publicity. But that’s a rather insane proposition, and now I’m picturing Fifty Shades Darker being written and performed like an episode of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls or Bunheads. It is glorious. Anyway, Mr. Dornan has a cult following on the BBC thriller The Fall (which just got renewed for a third season) and Ms. Johnson snagged the lead role in New Line Cinema’s How To Be Single and did a pretty solid job hosting Saturday Night Live (which makes sense considering she starred in the short-lived sitcom Ben and Kate) . They are both here to stay, if they so choose to stick around. But to the extent that they are now more famous and have more star power than they did a year ago, the film did its job and appearing in the sequels will not help make them any more bankable anymore than Johnny Depp appearing in Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Dead Men Tell No Tales will magically make Rise of the Dark Mortdecai a more winning box office proposition.
For the record I hope Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan and get whatever they ask for in exchange for returning to the sure-to-be-challenging sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey. Or heck, I hope they at least get a million bucks a pop so they can really dig deep for the final film of the trilogy. But unfortunately the concept-specific nature of the film’s success and the lack of any real audience attachment to the actors as the characters they played, which is partially represented in the film’s quickill domestic performance, means that they are in far more of a disadvantage in terms of salary negotiations for a sequel than one might presume from recent history. Fifty Shades of Grey became a smash because of its subject matter, the popularity of its source material, and the years of pre-release controversy and media attention. But Johnson and Dornan were not explicitly a large part of that financial success, nor would their return be all-that-vital to the success of the next sequel now matter how much I appreciated their efforts. I think they deserve a big raise in terms of their artistic contributions and for the sake of maintaining continuity over the next two films. But strictly in terms of putting butts in the seats, they are sadly expendable.