Summit's 'Twilight' a franchise with bite

4:22 PM PST 10/02/2008 by Steven Zeitchik, AP

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Nancy Kirkpatrick first noticed something wasn't quite normal when she arrived at Comic-Con in July. The head of marketing for upstart indie studio Summit Entertainment couldn't figure out why a line was snaking around the San Diego Convention Center nearly 24 hours before her panel was set to begin.

"I walked up to this group of people and I said, 'What are you waiting for?' " Kirkpatrick recalls. "Because I didn't think for a second that they were there for 'Twilight.' "

But they were, one of several signs that Summit had on its hands something more than just a midrange teen vampire romance. For those in the schoolgirl demo, the hunger for "Twilight" has become a blood lust as instense as their male classmates' desire to see summer superhero movies. Summit is counting on those fans to spread the word to other age groups or even to come back for "Titanic"-esque repeat viewings.

But will the buzz translate into blockbuster boxoffice?

The question has become one of the industry's most debated. Its answer will offer a referendum not just on Summit's ability to shepherd a studio-style hit but also on whether franchises can be created on modest budgets at a time when production and distribution costs are skyrocketing and the YouTube generation is harder to reach than ever.

Summit is careful not to overplay expectations for the film. Yet the hype ramped up after the company moved swiftly to snag the Nov. 21 pre-Thanksgiving release date when "Harry Potter" was pushed to 2009. Now, some boxoffice analysts are predicting the $37 million-budgeted film (according to Summit; some peg its cost at $40 million-$50 million) could earn back close to its budget during its opening weekend alone.

A year ago, few took notice when Summit said that it was developing a movie based on the first of young-adult writer Stephenie Meyer's four-book series detailing a tragic high school romance between Bella, who comes to a small town after her parents split, and Edward, her secret crush who as it turns out is a vampire.

That Summit had attached Catherine Hardwicke, director of the arty "thirteen," confirmed for many that the studio saw the film as a niche play.

But in the months that followed, a cultlike obsession about the film project grew.

Fans analyzed casting moves, especially leads Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, like investors monitoring the Dow. They whipped themselves into a frenzy over reported reshoots (mostly weather-related, it turns out). And they followed with skeptical eyes the script's faithfulness to key book scenes.

Even the city where the story takes place -- Forks, a real-life depressed timber town in rural Washington -- saw a spike in tourism as tween girls arrived by the minivan.

Summit, at first surprised by the hoopla, began to play along.

Executives decided to release trailers and tidbits on MySpace and MTV.com. They invited fansite operators to the Portland, Ore., set. And they sanctioned an Entertainment Weekly cover story a full six months before the film's release.

But as expectations grew with the hype, the strategy shifted. Now, only six weeks before the film bows, Summit is keeping a tight lid on all but a few more planned trailers before the prelaunch ad buy kicks in.

"Pacing is important on any campaign, especially this one," says Kirkpatrick, who was a consultant to the company before she was brought on full time in September in part to handle the "Twilight" release.

That there is such care -- some would call it nervousness -- about the film is not simply because a startup studio is protective of its first potential franchise. The film represents an ambitious and risky experiment that could set a new template for how to fuel boxoffice by reaching enthusiastic young audiences at reasonable budgets. If "Twilight" becomes a blockbuster series -- Summit already has optioned the second book, "New Moon" -- it could challenge the conventional wisdom that the four-quadrant, nine-figure tentpole is the only way to go.

There are reasons why that might be tricky.

Unlike "Potter" or "The Da Vinci Code" -- two other literary sensations that became film franchises -- "Twilight" is not a mega-best-seller. And the teen demographic that devours the novels can be especially fickle when it comes to its film choices.

Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg notes the "sheer excitement but also terror" she felt when the Comic-Con footage was shown. "I thought, 'The scenes are similar to the book but different enough that if they didn't like it, they're going to ride me out of the room.' " (Rosenberg pointedly did not read any of the other books when she was writing "Twilight" to keep the focus tightly on this story.)

It doesn't help that few films have blended elements like "Twilight" has. Teen romances like "A Walk to Remember" aren't typically as dark or as moody, and most of the youth-themed supernatural films like "Eragon" aim at least partly at boys.

At the same time, female-oriented teen films, from "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" to "High School Musical," document adolescence without a genre cloak.



Summit's challenge is to use the film's raised profile to expand its appeal beyond the very audience responsible for bolstering expectations. As one rival studio marketing exec puts it, "If they just get teenage girls, they're dead."

Recognizing this, Summit has come up with some savvy ideas. Kirkpatrick's team has been marketing to an online group called Twilight Moms, women who have embraced the book after being turned on to it by their daughters.

The studio is planning an aggressive television rollout during shows that 12- to 24-year-olds are likely to watch, and it has undertaken a broad MySpace campaign that it says has yielded millions of hits. "You can't get that (traffic) just from teenage girls, no matter how many times someone hits enter," Kirkpatrick says.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to reach not just girls and adult women but also boys, who for decades have been willing to embrace metaphors for their own adolescence via superhero movies. To this end, Summit has generated trailers (including footage shown at Comic-Con) stressing the action scenes.

"If I were marketing this movie, I'd want to make sure it doesn't look like it's based on the books, because anyone who reads the books is already in the tent," Syracuse University pop culture professor Robert Thompson says. "Make it look like a rip-roaring good story about vampires that doesn't make a 12-year-old boy say, 'That's what the girls are reading.' "

Few have seen the final cut, but the film is said to remain true to the tone and the pivotal moments in the book, including two key sequences involving Bella and Edward being chased at a baseball game and Edward showing his daylight self in a meadow.

Several scenes that were interior in the book were condensed in the film. Most notably, a scene in which Bella confronts Edward about his vampire secret went from a slow reveal over dozens of pages to a single high-pitched confrontation.

"The big moments are easy," Rosenberg says. "What’s more difficult are the moments between them."

The film's ending leaves things more open than in the book, particularly when it comes to the toothy villains. Summit is hoping its strategy has just as much bite.

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Kids in play
Other potential young-adult franchises in development

"Tintin"
Georges Remi's beloved Belgian comic-strip hero Tintin, a junior reporter whose 23 adventure books have sold 200 million copies worldwide. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are producing three back-to-back performance-capture features for Paramount, with Spielberg directing the first film.

"Children of the Lamp"   
Series of books by P.B. Kerr about a pair of globetrotting 12-year-old twins who discover they are descended from genies. Nina Jacobson is producing at DreamWorks/ Paramount. Lee Hall wrote a draft, and Dave Guion and Michael Handelman are now scripting.

"Spook's Apprentice"
Joseph Delaney's book about a teenage boy training to be an exorcist in the 1700s. Warner Bros. has enlisted Matthew Greenberg to adapt and Kevin Lima to direct the first film.    

"Ranger's Apprentice"
Medieval fantasy novels by John Flanagan. MGM/UA own rights, and Paul Haggis is adapting and potentially directing the first in what could be a series of films.

"The 39 Clues"
DreamWorks acquired this forthcoming 10-book series by Rick Riordan about the Cahills, a mysterious family. Writer Jeff Nathason is adapting the first novel, and Steven Spielberg might direct.
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