50 Shades and Movie Success

Book CoverEarlier this week, news broke that Universal and Focus Features paid a staggering amount of money for the film rights to 50 Shades of Greyrumors are “in the neighborhood of $5 million (US).”Two covers for EW, one with 50 Shades, the other with Hunger games

And on this week's Entertainment Weekly cover, readers get a choice of a cover featuring the clothed Hunger Games' Jennifer Lawrence or a very naked, mostly faceless woman rubbing her shoulder blade (or shaving her armpit) with a copy of 50 Shades of Grey.

The continued media saturation around 50 Shades, especially as it's cast alongside the Hunger Games movie, got me thinking about book-to-movie deals, and how some of them, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Twilight, and Hunger Games for example, became hugely successful film franchises. I started wondering if there's a formula, or a storm of specific elements that coalesce into film success. There are a lot of similarities between these books and their film successes.

First, all of these books have a sizeable readership. With Lord of the Rings, there was a huge readership of several very different groups of people, and a set of books that have been available since 1954 — plenty of time for plenty of people to have read them, especially as the books have been honored several times as being among the best of the century.

The first Harry Potter book was published in 1997, and the final book released in 2007 to an audience of adults and children who had grown up with the characters over the 10 year span. Twilight and The Hunger Games, published in 2005 and 2008 respectively, also amassed large and vocal fan bases with the first books in each series. The Twilight audiences grew as the next three Twilight series books released in 2006, 2007, and 2008. The second Hunger Games book, Catching Fire, was released in 2009, and the final book in the trilogy, Mockingjay, was released in 2010.

Though over a much shorter period of time, 50 Shades of Grey follows a similar release pattern. It was first published as Twilight fanfiction titled “Master of the Universe”, and 50 Shades of Grey appeared in its current form in June 2011, with 50 Shades Darker appearing in September 2011 and 50 Shades Freed arriving in January 2012.

I'd argue that the first major element to book-to-film success is that blend of growing an audience through timed releases. There has to be some time for the audience to grow, for word of mouth to spread, and, with series books such as these, for momentum to build as each new book appears on the market. Plus, there's timing meant in part to tantalize: Twilight and the Hunger Games books were released one per year, and I well remember folks itching to read the next one, and feeling the misery that they had to wait so long. The release of Twilight's and the Hunger Games' final books were events for fans of those series. With 50 Shades, that growing audience online was satisfied within three month increments, and, as we've seen, the media saturation has increased the audience for the book – but what more is there to say? The shorter release schedule makes me wonder if the audience growth for 50 Shades was stunted by the quick release, and the shorter build time, and now, there's nothing but the possibility of a film to look forward to.

So in these examples, the fanbase of each novel (or series) increased to the point that there were recognizable and somewhat quantifiable audiences for each one. The books were/are bestsellers, and reached a sort of saturation point, where more people had heard of them than not. This alleged quote from a review in the Sunday Times of Tolkein's books the year they were published made me smile: “the English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them.” I know that feeling – and I felt similarly with Twilight, the Harry Potter series, Hunger Games and, to a lesser extent, 50 Shades of Grey.

Thus we have Books With a Big Fanbase, step one in my theory. The books have to be successful and popular, with time to grow an audience, especially if the books are part of a series.

A scene from the Hunger Games film, with saturated green and sunlight framing the actors. Step two: actually making the film. Because reading is inherently a mentally creative exercise, the movie has to, in some way, top what each of our imaginations create as we read the text. The film should be, in some manner, exceptional eye candy. It has to be visually captivating and, as much as possible, as powerful a story told visually as it was in text.

I've called the Twilight film series “tree porn” – it's a truly beautiful setting for a film. You can mute the film and look at the trees and have a fine time, even when Edward sparkles. I'm not admitting that I've done this, but it's possible. The Hunger Games, while being graphic and at times heartbreaking, as I've been told be those who have seen it, is also visually appealing. The stills from the forest, and of characters like Effie and others from the Capitol, are color saturated and very curious. The Harry Potter movies also caputred the ethereal and menacing magic of Hogwarts, and each movie has moments of visual fascination. The power of the Potter film franchise continues: props, costumes and items from the filming still attract attention. And few movies qualify as eye candy as much as Lord of the Rings did for me. It's stunning, from the scenery to the effects to the elves.

So the movie has to not suck as a visual enticement, and as a narrative that follows the plot of the source material. Fans of a book who go to a movie based on that book most likely expect the story to be close to the original. I admit, I honestly thought the movies based on the Meyer series were going to stink, simply because I couldn't figure out how the first person narration would translate to film. The story still wasn't my taste, but I admit I was wrong about the movie version: it's drenched in beautiful lighting (and tree porn) and it's close to the original material. Harry Potter stayed close enough to the source material that the movie for one book was broken into two parts of about two hours each – as was the last of the Twilight movies. Hunger Games is also close to the original text – though the director did, I believe, drop and merge some characters.

In the EW cover, Edward has weirdly orange hair, and Bella looks comatose.It also helps to have some WTF? fan responses during filming. This cover for Twilight on EW did not help – was Edward ill? why is his hair orange? – and I recall there was some negative response to Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss initially. That's natural, I think, given that the books had already active and eager readers behind them before production began, unlike other book-to-movie films where the success of the movie far exceeded the popularity of the book upon which it was based – Forrest Gump, for example. The readers who are invested in the book and in the story are built-in critics of the movie versions.

Controversy about the filming of something that is so loved by so many helps keep the film in progress in the consciousness of the targeted audience. I think that may be why Robert Pattinson's hair was powdered until it was orange: just to stir up some pre-film drama.

So the fanbase has to be met with a film that's filled with visuals that are as good, if not better, than what might have been in the imaginations of the readers, and that stays loyal to the source material as much as possible. In short, in a few key ways, it has to not totally suck. 

Then comes media saturation when the film is released. That's an important step, I think, especially because the media exposure feeds the (one hopes) already-curious audience, who in turn create more media exposure by talking about it. The Harry Potter movie releases were timed for huge exposure as movie events, and I saw advertisements for them on television, in trains and on buses, and in just about every magazine I picked up. And I don't have the faintest idea how much the saturation I saw with Twilight and the Hunger Games movie coast in total. I do know that the Hunger Games was Everywhere. I joked at one point that the movie was more pervasive than Adele and likely to come in my house and steal my beer if I wasn't careful. And I remember during the release of the first Twilight movie, there were spoken ads on every radio station in New York, from the top 40 station to the light and easy listening station. The Lite-FM DJ ads were the most awkward, too. You know how the DJs on lite-FM stations are often really earnest and jocular in a false and sometimes irritating way? Imagine that guy talking about Bella and Edward in the same tone of voice you'd hear used to describe Autoland's sale on used Hondas. It was baffling and weird, but it was everywhere.

There were subway ads for Twilight everywhere, too – I remember thinking that Kirsten Stewart's face had been altered to look very, very young in the ads, and wondering why Edward's eyes weren't straight.

With media saturation, and the accompanying expense, the other two factors still have to be present. Media exposure alone won't help if there isn't an audience to market to, and a film that is rumored to be horrible or very far away from the source material won't appeal to that audience. The Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games films had to represent a story that many, many people already loved deeply. The films had to be visually appealing in stills and clips, so that, even without the already-built audience and the stealing-your-beer promotional effort, the opportunity to see it is alluring.

So how does this translate to 50 Shades? I honestly don't know, and think that Universal and Focus Features have taken a really big risk. There's a fair amount of disadvantage at the 50 Shades movie's prospects, for example, when compared to its source material, Twilight. Twilight focuses on teen(ish) vampires and a high school girl in the Pacific northwest. There's otherworldly elements, plus tree porn, to film. 50 Shades focuses on a secretive, wealthy CEO and an in-over-her-head-at-times college student, and their conflict, instead of sparkly vampirism, is largely centered on sex.

That makes me question what the film rating will be, based on whether it stays as true to the source material as the audience might wish. Twilight and Hunger Games were rated PG-13, which makes sense since they were both based on YA novels, (though some are questioning the Hunger Games' rating based on the violence in the film). 50 Shades is not a YA novel, and I don't think there's a chance of getting a PG-13 rating if the content stays loyal to the books.  50 Shades as a trilogy already has a strong fan base, and has a wealth of media exposure already – and surely those factors influenced the amount paid for film rights. Whether the movie delivers the visual allure necessary to draw that audience remains to be seen – as does the ability of the promotion to reach the level of saturation and popularity as the other examples I discussed.

Delivering the visual allure and staying loyal to the source material will present the biggest challenges to the success of a film based on these books. I think the challenge will be enticing that audience to re-experience the story in a new medium, because it's one thing to read a sexually-explicit story, and another matter to go to a theatre with other people in the room to watch it. 50 Shades has a good number of explicit sexual depictions in it: how can a film stay loyal to the explicitness while not landing itself an NC-17 rating? Moreover, most of the press coverage has been tied to the ever-delightful term “Mommy porn.” That might have helped the book gain attention, but would it help the film version? I suspect not.

ETA: E! Online's Ted Casablanca also wrote about the question of film rating earlier this week, wondering similarly if the film could stay true to the book without landing an NC-17.

Further, as Jim L. wrote in an email exchange with me earlier this week, “how would a mainstream movie handle [the presence of] kink?  For the most part, movies tend to treat the kinky as either comical (the film of Exit to Eden, Eating Raoul) or menacing (plenty of villains, 9 1/2 Weeks), with romantic of positive examples being few and far between (the great flick Secretary being a rare example).” Setting aside the portrayal of BDSM in 50 Shades for a moment, Jim poses a salient question. If the film depicts the kink in the book accurately, the movie may end up nowhere near an R rating, unless it somehow becomes a comedy. 

I think the successful formula for making a successful movie from a much-loved and popular book includes these specific parts: a present and interested, active and reachable fanbase, a film that adheres to the source material as much as possible while also presenting something visually unique and interesting, and a media campaign that reaches and builds upon that existing fanbase. Whether 50 Shades can achieve film success remains to be seen, but I am not optimistic about its future success as a movie because I am having trouble envisioning a film that would stay close to the material while offering something visually unique. It has a fanbase and media exposure seems a given – but the film itself I'm not confident about at all. But perhaps, like with Twilight, I'll be surprised. 

What about you? Do you think this book would translate well to film? What other book-to-movie projects do you think could have been done better, and why? What do you think makes a hugely successful book-to-movie?




Random Musings

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  1. 1
    Mirandaflynn says:

    I don’t think you brought up merchandising, which has been an indicator of a film’s success since Star Wars (although personally, I can’t wait to see the associated Tonner dolls and birthday cards :) )

    The Potter films, while very well done, didn’t always translate to the screen well just because there was so much going on in the books that didn’t make it to the screen. This is especially true in Order of the Phoenix.


  2. 2
    Brigid Kemmerer says:

    What a fascinating post! When my Entertainment Weekly dropped in my mailbox yesterday, I saw the cover and thought, “How the heck are they going to make that a movie??” Because you’re absolutely right: the term “mommy-porn” definitely isn’t going to help. It’s one thing for women to smile and read it on their e-Readers, it’s entirely another to visibly walk into a theater to see a movie classified as “mommy-porn.” I’m not saying that’s RIGHT (no one should be ashamed of enjoying this or any other book, or of wanting to see it translated to film), but I think it’s valid. 

    Then again, maybe that’s the angle the studios should go for. Women banding together to go see a movie like this, claiming that we don’t have to hide our desire for sensuality any more than men do. A woman in my office hesitantly brought up that she was reading 50 Shades for her book club, and she presented it like, “Well, *I* would never read a book like this, but my book club is making me…” (as if they were holding her down and clicking the Kindle buttons while shoving it against her face) and it wasn’t until I said that I’d read it too that she admitted really enjoying it.

    Fascinating. Really fascinating. I want to go read your blot post again.

    And in regards to the Hunger Games, I kind of agree about the rating. My friend (who has not read the books) wants to take her 10-year-old daughter, under the reasoning, “Well, PG-13 movies aren’t that bad.” I think she’d be more comfortable with her little girl hearing the F word than seeing some of the slaughter on the screen.

  3. 3
    Flo_over says:

    I think that the films that do well also have to have more than 1 age group ability to view them.  You could, conceivably, take a 7 year old to any of the Lord of Rings films.  You could certainly take them to the Harry Potter films.  You could take a 7 year old to the Twitlight films but they might get bored.  Or perhaps it would be a good nap-time flick.  You could also take a 7 year old to the Hunger Games but again, they might get bored.

    I very much doubt that you could or should take a 7 year old to a movie based on 50 Shades of Grey.  It is intended for women of a more advanced age.  Say, in terms of vague sexual maturity, 18ish.  So it’s missing that vital component of being viable for a family adventure.  I’d even put it more in the category of “Date Night” where rom coms would be.  I could see a lot of arm twisting to get the man-type-person to go along on such a movie outing.

    So 50 Shades seems to be (or perhaps should be) marketed for that “mommy porn” group.  Which will cut out a massive portion of viewership.  Which happens to be the ankle biters, tweens, and teens.

  4. 4
    Aidaalberto66 says:

    I can’t see 50 Shades of Grey as a movie because of the numerous explicit scenes and if you cut those out to me you’ll lose part of the story because in this book they play an important part.  I read all three books and enjoyed them all.  I hate that term “mommy porn” because it targets only one set of readers that I don’t fit in.  I read erotica and don’t want it tagged as “mommy porn.”  I am a 45 year old divorced woman with no children who enjoys these types of stories.  Just as I enjoy chick-lit, literature, romance, suspense, thrillers and all the other types of books that I read.  What ever happened to the term reader?  When did that go out of style?

  5. 5
    Sandra says:

    I don’t think a FSoG movie will make it. Just because a book’s been optioned doesn’t mean that it’ll be showing up in your neighborhood multiplex any time soon. It could take years for a film to be released. FSoG strikes me as one of those here-today gone-tomorrow phenomena. It won’t be long before it’s replaced in the public consciousness by something else.

    By the time the movie comes out, the momentum will be long gone, and the fan base doesn’t seem to me to be large enough to support a major film. It might work as a cable network mini-series. Then the producers can be as explicit as they want and viewers will have the same anonymity as they have reading the books on their e-reader.

    This is all assuming, of course, that Stephanie Meyers doesn’t bring suit for infringement and win. Then again, if she sues and loses, that would bring FSoG back into the public eye.

  6. 6
    SB Sarah says:

    Yes, I agree. I think much of the hype surrounding 50 Shades and the movie deal amplified so quickly that it’ll end up being more of a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon than something with a long term audience. But I could easily be wrong about that!

  7. 7
    Gina says:

    Though often a fan of erotica for some reason every time I read the excerpt for the first book I get turned off so I’m weighing in without reading the series at all.  From all the media hype and blog posts surrounding the books I have a fairly good idea of the material involved and cannot conceive of a way to adequately translate even the theory behind the book while maintaining a “fun for all” rating.  Nor do I think a book clearly geared toward woman, not the YA audience, should be cut up to suddenly appeal to this unintended audience.

    As for marketing as mommy porn…girls night out, etc…while I have no issue with anyone knowing what types of books I read, nor do I care their reactions, the idea of sitting in a movie theater with a hundred other women watching erotica has no appeal.  None.  It may even have an ick factor, like Peewee Herman at a peep show ick…

    I personally like my mommy porn with a glass of wine, some really good chocolate and my husband within reach, just a personal preference.

  8. 8
    Pear says:

    I’m wondering if their intention is to market FSoG to older Twilight fans who are more interested in sexual activity than the middle school aged girls in love with Twilight.

  9. 9
    Robin L. Rotham says:

    If they’re smart, they’ll cast Michael Fassbender as Christian and take it straight to pay-per-view/DVD with an NC-17 rating. I imagine it would fly off Amazon’s shelves faster than the book—there’s just not enough high-quality visual Mommy porn out there.

  10. 10
    SB Sarah says:

    I wonder if you’re on to something there: a straight-to-digital-download of the film, maybe with the books bundled in, preserving the sexual content and the privacy/intimacy of experiencing the content. That could be a curiously successful option.

  11. 11
    Robin L. Rotham says:

    I might make that my very first pirated download, delete the books, and send Stephenie Meyer a check for the purchase price.

  12. 12
    SB Sarah says:

    *wheezelaugh* *morewheezelaugh*

  13. 13

    I hope you’re not wrong about that.  Every time I think of the buzz over 50 Shades and compare it to really good BDSM romance (Joey Hill, Emma Holly, et al) it makes me want to weep.

  14. 14
    Michelle C. says:

    A lot of these successful book franchises (and subsequent movies) follow Campbell’s ‘hero monomyth’. Arguably, that’s why they succeed as multi-generational novels. Jung would say they serve to meet our deep-seated, archetypal needs. I have not read FSoG, I’m not at all sure that I will, but it does not sound as if it will gain the support it needs to make the successful book to screen transition.

  15. 15
    Jennifer says:

    Yesh, I imagine that I will have the same discussions about 50 Shades as I did Twilight… as in,  “There are better books about this (vampires/sex/romance/etc) out there!!”

  16. 16
    Still Sexy at Sixty!! says:

    Just found this article on Huffington Post.  “Secret Book Club for Moms discussing 50SofG”.  Here’s the link or go to Huff Post and scoll down, its on the right hand side. 

  17. 17
    cleo says:

    I can sort of see this being marketed as a “girls night out” movie, a la the Sex in the City movies or Eat, Pray, Love.  Except the sexual content / mommy porn label might counteract that. 

    I’ve managed to avoid most of the 50SoG coverage, but this week driving to work, one of the morning drive djs started talking about “mommy porn” – I didn’t make the 50 Shades connection at first and I immediately visualized porn involving a naked woman breastfeeding a baby.  (I’m sure just confessing that image is enough to get me banned in some states).  Once I figured out what they were really talking about, I spent the rest of my commute fuming about the condescending tone of the DJs (both male and female) – like it’s this shocking secret that adult women think about sex (let alone having it or liking it).  Then I started fantasizing about calling in and telling them that once you’ve read m/m shape shifter BSDSM romance, something like 50 Shades of Gray seems pretty tame. 

  18. 18
    cleo says:

    My hope is that the buzz will lead people to discover other bdsm romances.  Not sure about that, since it seems like a lot of the coverage makes it seem like 50SoG is one of a kind.  That’s why I think the bdsm romance posts here and at DA are so important. 

  19. 19
    RB says:

    This news has my writing group, which heretofore had been tyrannically focused on craft, discussing which children’s books they should cannibalize and add a bunch of sex to in order to achieve fame and fortune.

    (And not in an ironic way, as I discovered when I said Winnie-the-Pooh is fit to burst with sexual potential.)

  20. 20
    Alpha Lyra says:

    I don’t know. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on the specific material and how it would translate to the screen. But I can say this. It’s one thing to read explicit material in the privacy of my own home, and quite another to watch it on the big screen in a crowd of people. When I saw the “Hunger Games,” the principal of my son’s school was in the theater with me. I don’t think I’d want to run into her while watching a BDSM romance.

  21. 21
    Jim L says:

    I *hope* the movie gets made and done well—but there are plenty of pitfalls along the way: how to keep the erotic edge without earning an NC-17 or unrated rating; how to keep the kinkiness from veering into comedy or abuse; and how to make any potential scandal work for the movie by generating interest, instead of leading to protests or theater chains not showing it.

    Let’s hope this gets done well. As SHOWGIRLS taught us, having lots of sex, a big budget, and a big director is no guarantee of box-office success.

  22. 22
    Christine says:

    I think it will be very interesting to see if a FSoG movie gets out of development. It’s become a popular book, sure, but not every popular book is a popular movie (see: A Series of Unfortunate Events and John Carter for starters).

    Twilight and the Hunger Games are both franchises that target two major demographics for Hollywood, women and families, both of whom generally get pushed aside for Transformers 12: Still Finding Cities to Blow Up. That being said, FSoG = not a family film, so that leaves just the adult female fanbase and horny teenage boys who are curious to see all teh sex on screen. How do they market “Mommy’s secret book” as something openly for all to see on a Saturday night in a public place?

    Plus, Hollywood has always had hang-ups about sex, nevermind the kinky stuff. It would have to be a very loose adaptation to get an R rating—just think of all the nonsense Robert Pattison said in interviews about how far he could tilt his pelvis and what kind of noise he could make to get Breaking Dawn’s PG13 rating.

  23. 23
    Jenny Lyn says:

    Yes, this. Ditto, ditto, ditto!

    I don’t think FSoG will ever make it to the “big screen” for all the reasons every else has mentioned. But if they do what Robin said and cast Fassbender, straight to DVD, or gah! Blue-Ray, it’ll sell like hotcakes because you’re preserving the viewers anonymity.

    I saw some talk on the web already about casting Liam Hemsworth or Zac Effron in the role of Christian Gray. That would be their second mistake, the first being paying $5 million dollars for the movie rights.

    You gotta figure too that all those other book to movie translations Sarah mentioned involved a great deal of visual appeal/CGI and adventure – Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Hunger Games. Would FSoG have any of that? Urm, no.

  24. 24
    Evelyn says:

    I usually really dislike books as movies. I think the movies usually are awful and then the awful movies replace the books which are better.
    I can’t see 50 shades as movie for all the reasons you mentioned. It reminds me of play adaptions hitting the big screen. Has anyone else ever seen the movie of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite? It was a good play/script. But the main character is the hotel room the plaza suite. Even though it was a faithful adaption it still bothered critics and audiences(according to people at TCM) that all of the action took place in one room.

    Anyway I am sick and tired of the Hunger Games. I have not read the book and have no desire to read the book. I am a romance reader; I like happy stories not ones where everyone kills each other. The Hunger Games aren’t family films.  They are not appropriate for children. Anyway I am startled by how popular the books; people who didn’t read Harry Potter or Twilight or anything else particularly are reading these books. It really makes me sad how celebrate violence is in our society.

  25. 25
    Julia says:

    One of the things that I think made the Harry Potter and Twilight movie franchises so successful is that the series were still “ongoing” in some way at the time of the first film release. If I remember correctly, the first Potter movie came out between the 4th and 5th book. The first Twilight film came out right after the last book was released in hardcover. In each of these cases I think there were a lot of people who saw the first movie and then went to read the books, instead of reading the book first. Reading the books held people over until the next movie came out and vice versa. I sort of feel like FSoG has reached a saturation point where most of the people who are going to read it have done so and I don’t think a movie would pull a different audience to the book. I agree with everyone who has said this feels like a flash in the pan – unless the movie can be in theaters before the media coverage of the book wanes, I think everyone will have forgotten about it. And the series is over – there aren’t any new books to draw attention back to it.

  26. 26

    If I have to suffer the phrase “mommy porn” one more time I’m going to gouge my eyes out. If they want to give me real “mommy porn,” could they make it this? http://www.chroniclebooks.com/… (Don’t worry, SFW)

  27. 27
    pamelia says:

    I can’t say I can see these books working as films.  I love the books and was hoping for a serialized HBO/Showtime treatment that could give the sex a more episodic spread.  I can’t imagine how the movies will incorporate 12 sex scenes PLUS per film and still maintain narrative interest.  Maybe they’ll focus on the relationship drama and humor and angst (of which there is plenty), but I just don’t see these three books translate into 3 2-hour movies.  If they can do it more power to them.  I for one think the Twilight films are NOT successes, but that’s because I despise both K Stewart and R Pattinson in their roles and think the first film sanitized out all of Bella’s personality and all the humor found in the books.  I think the LOTR and Harry Potter films were much better and I think it’s because they were very smart in how they chose to stick to the books and how they chose to deviate from the books.  Like you said though, all these fantasy books have great visual impact and it might be more difficult to do that in FSOG world although I would LOVE to see the Red Room brought to life.  :)

  28. 28
    Lizwadsworth65 says:

    I have a gut feeling that if “50 Shades…” ever gets made it will be as a low-budget, indie art-house project with no big-name stars and a limited release.

  29. 29
    margarida says:

    yeah right, like Michael Fassbender would accept to be in this crap.

  30. 30
    Ann Bruce says:

    A well-known, on-going series with a large fan base does not equal box office success.  Case in point: One for the Money tanked at the box office.  A movie with an NC-17 rating?  I doubt it.  Maybe in the rental market.

    More importantly, I think for most women, our brains need to be engaged to be aroused.  Books can turn me on; watching porn on TV, not so much.  For me, watching 9 1/2 Weeks was at times awkward, uncomfortable, and confusing but never arousing.  I had to watch Die Hard afterwards to make me feel better.

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