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This story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
By the time 2008 rolled around, vampires were well established in the zeitgeist with a surging Twilight film series and the beginnings of HBO’s True Blood. The CW, a joint venture of CBS Corp. and Warner Bros., put its hat in the ring with The Vampire Diaries — and the risk paid off. Based on L. J. Smith‘s young-adult novels, the show centers on a parentless teenage girl who catches the eye of two vampire brothers while navigating adolescence, the supernatural and death. Lots of death. Any talk of Diaries just being TV’s Twilight clone subsided when it debuted Sept. 10, 2009, to 5.7 million viewers and became The CW’s highest-rated show among younger viewers, with an enviable median viewer age of 34.5. While season-five ratings average 3.8 million, its social media reach is far-ranging, with nearly 18 million Facebook fans and 420,000 Twitter followers (more than 17 million if you count the cast’s and producers’ followers). It ranks as the fourth-most-social broadcast series, behind American Idol, The Voice and The X Factor, according to Trendrr, and it’s seen in more than 180 countries. The key players of Diaries spoke candidly with THR about the success of the series.
THE TWILIGHT EFFECT
PETER ROTH, Warner Bros. TV Group president and chief content officer: At the time, Alloy Entertainment, now a part of Warner Bros., were our partners. Through that relationship, we were exposed to The Vampire Diaries and were so taken with these characters.
KEVIN WILLIAMSON, executive producer: A long, long, long time ago, Alloy had brought the books to my office, saying, “What about a movie?” I basically didn’t read the books. I said no on the premise and the idea. It just seemed, in the wake of Twilight, that it shouldn’t be the direction I take. Then, years later, The CW came to me with it.
JULIE PLEC, executive producer: It was October 2008, and Kevin and I were having lunch at Morton’s in Burbank with a friend of ours, Jen Breslow, an executive at The CW at the time, who had spent 10 or 15 years working for Kevin. We started talking about vampires and Twilight and True Blood, and how it was a bummer that nobody else would want to do any vampire projects because the market was full. Jen said, “Actually, that’s not true. We’ve got a book series over at The CW that we’ve been trying to crack.” I hadn’t heard of The Vampire Diaries, but Kevin had.
WILLIAMSON: Someone I cared about very deeply had just died, and Julie, one of my best friends, said, “You need to work to get through your grief.” I read it and connected to the story of a young girl who had lost her parents and was trying to find a way to live again. I was like, “Julie, let’s do this. We can make it epic.”
ROTH: I remember in 2009, it was probably one of the best pilot scripts of the year.
PLEC: We started so late in the game that we were having notes calls on New Year’s Eve.
FINDING THE MAIN TRIO
WILLIAMSON: Elena was blond in the books and the first Twitter response we got was, “You better not cast a brunette.” I pictured her with brown hair.
NINA DOBREV, cast (Elena): Everybody was auditioning for it and I had just come down [to Los Angeles] after finishing a contract on Degrassi: The Next Generation in Canada. It was one of my first auditions, and the first time, I did it sick and I didn’t really do that well. When I went back to Canada, I retaped for it. They flew me out for the screen test and I got the role, but they didn’t tell me for a while.
PLEC: We brought the tape over to Warner Bros. and Peter Roth jumped up and down and flipped out: “That’s our girl.” Only we couldn’t officially cast her until we had the men.
IAN SOMERHALDER, cast (Damon): I really wanted to rebel against the Twilight era that was happening. But I realized Damon could be one of the coolest characters on television ever. I got to the network test and I bombed it.
WILLIAMSON: His auditions were never great, but I knew he could do it. I knew he was that part. The CW kept saying no. They wanted someone else. It’s the only time in my career where if he didn’t get the part, I’m walking. They backed up and said, “OK, we’ll go for it.”
PLEC: We read Paul Wesley for Damon on day one. He was a favorite of our casting directors. We said, “He’s not ready for Damon, not enough humor there.”
PAUL WESLEY, cast (Stefan): Filming had to start in a few days and they had no Stefan. I connected with Stefan more and wanted to play Stefan, but it was an age thing. I went back in and screen-tested against a dozen guys. It was like American Idol. Nina was in the hallway chatting with everyone and I entirely avoided her, and she thought, “Who is this kid?” I knew I wanted to go in the room with Nina and have our first scene be literally the first time we spoke, which is exactly what the scene called for. I guess my plan worked.
A FAST START
WILLIAMSON: Paul and Nina had beautiful chemistry in the pilot, where Stefan takes the leaf off Elena’s shirt in the graveyard when she falls down and he helps her up. I thought, “If people turn on the channel and watch this, we may have something special here because they’re clicking.”
DOBREV: It felt right. Everyone made fun of me because I was the only one who bought a property [in Atlanta] when we first started shooting the series. Cut to five years later and I’m the only one who didn’t have to pay five years of rent.
PLEC: Kevin and I were convinced that the launch would be the most embarrassing thing that ever hit network television and we would be dead in the water. We were convinced this would be the thing that spawned 1,000 articles about how vampires are over. Right around the sixth episode, our first flashback episode, the world exploded. We ended up on a bunch of top 10 lists at the end of the year.
WILLIAMSON: I had been telling Julie that I wanted to do 24. If we do a slow, melodramatic soap opera about vampires, it’s going to be boring. The audience is going to be jumping ahead so fast. They’re texting while they’re watching your TV show. You’ve got to give them a twist, a turn. The end of season one was a shining moment, when Katherine showed up and cut off Uncle John Gilbert’s fingers. My dad called up afterward and said, “That might be the best damn cliff-hanger I’ve ever seen.”
A FAN FRENZY
SOMERHALDER: Hot Topic did mall tours where we would go to a store and do a fan Q-and-A. Our first one was at a Georgia mall food court; we got out of the bus and there were 5,000 screaming girls. We went to London in 2009 and again had this crazy pandemonium, and we hadn’t even aired in the U.K. yet.
DOBREV: I remember when The O.C. came out. If you didn’t watch The O.C., you had nothing to talk about, and somebody told me that’s what our show was to people in high school and junior high. Some people would tell me, “My friend has your poster on their locker.” I can’t believe I’m that girl now.
WESLEY: We’re in our own bubble in Atlanta, but people started coming up to me on the streets, old and young, male and female. People were obviously watching this thing and it became a big deal pop-culturally.
PLEC: In China, Paul and Ian can’t walk down the street without being mobbed by girls because they’re so famous there.
WILLIAMSON: The CW did a brilliant marketing campaign of shows to talk about, shows to tweet about. They encouraged us to start doing live-tweeting and viewing parties on Twitter. Next thing you know, it built a life of its own in the Twitterverse.
MARK PEDOWITZ, The CW president: It is the No. 1 scripted broadcast social media show this year on television. It’s a force.
REACHING A MILESTONE
ROTH: This represents the 18th Warner Bros. TV series in the last 15 years that has reached this extraordinary milestone [of 100 episodes]. We’re very, very proud of this. It’s the stuff of longevity and profitability.
PEDOWITZ: It means stability. It means all those statements that you’re going away aren’t real. People came to watch these shows, and it also means you’re there for the long run.
PLEC: We wanted the 100th episode to not only be a good episode of television but also a celebration of our experiences with each other.
WILLIAMSON: It’s incredibly satisfying to create a world that has lived on through 100 weeks of television and be able to do that with a good group of people. I’m a very blessed man.
DOBREV: Hopefully people keep watching and are as passionate as they are now, and in the future, we’ll take it to 150.
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