Twilight: the world's richest bloody franchise

85 million books sold. The biggest opening of any film in US history. Guy Adams and Arifa Akbar investigate how the 'Twilight' vampire stories got their teeth into the minds – and purses – of teenage girls the world over

Tuesday 24 November 2009 01:00 GMT

Have you been bitten? If you’re over 20, or happen to own a Y chromosome, the answer is probably not. But if you talked to a teenage girl at the weekend, or stepped into the crowded foyer of a cinema , you’ll almost certainly have been touched by the all-conquering vampire phenomenon that is Twilight.

New Moon, the second instalment of this remarkably-successful series, began selling out cinemas at midnight on Thursday, and promptly shattered box-office records. In the US, it sold $70m (£40m) of tickets on its opening day, more than any other film in history. By Sunday night, it had clocked-up global earnings of roughly $260m [£150m], an opening-weekend figure only bettered twice.

Millions of “Twi-hards” with their T-shirts proclaiming allegiance to “Team Jacob” or “Team Edward” are duly turning this teenage fantasy into the biggest youth entertainment franchise since Harry Potter, with an overall value estimated to be in the billions. British actor Robert Pattinson, the film’s square-jawed male lead, may not be competing for Oscars any time soon; but he is nonetheless suddenly one of the most valuable men in show-business.

“What’s refreshing is that it has not just drawn the usual audience of horror fans, but also appealed to a teenage girl sensibility. It has managed to draw much more widespread acknowledgement,” said Ali Jaafar, the international editor of Variety in London. “The first in the series was big but this second one has built its success on new fans.”

Setting the box-office showing in context, Tim Richards, chief executive of Vue Entertainment cinemas, one of the UK’s largest commercial chains, said simply: “These were the largest attended midnight shows we have ever done. We were adding extra shows right up to the last moment to cope with the demand.”

Not bad, you might say, given that the books that spawned Twilight, by US author Stephanie Meyer, were mercilessly panned by snobbish literary critics, with one British newspaper declaring them: “astonishing, mainly for the ineptitude of prose.”

Not bad, either, given the lukewarm critical reception for both films: New Moon garnered just 30 per cent positive reviews on the filmranking website Rotten Tomatoes, which dubbed it “too long” and complained of its “clunky” storyline and “laughable” dialogue.

Few things are ever logical about box office sensations, though. And so long as the tales of teenage everywoman Bella Swan, played by Kristen Stewart, and her other-worldly suitor Edward Cullen (Pattinson), continue to catch the commercial equivalent of lightning in a bottle, stock markets and Hollywood analysts will be scrambling to answer one simple question: who is making all the money?

The most obvious first answer, of course is Ms Meyer, a devout, somewhat reclusive, 35-year-old Mormon who lives in small-town Arizona and claims the idea for the Twilight novels first came to her in a dream in 2003. Her four-book series, told from the breathless, girly perspective of Bella, has since sold more than 85m copies, and been translated into 37 languages, netting her an annual income that was recently estimated by Forbes magazine at $50m [$30m].

Also thanking their lucky stars are Little, Brown & Co, the publishing firm which won the rights to the books. They bid a reported $750,000 for a three-book deal with Meyer in an auction that ensued after the author’s sister persuaded her to post the 500-page manuscript to dozens of literary firms.

Now they are hoping that Breaking Dawn, the last novel in the saga, will be followed (as Meyer has previously promised) by a similar series telling the same story from Edward Cullen’s male perspective. The early chapters of the first book in that series, Midnight Sun, were leaked a couple of years back, although Meyer has so far shown little sign of finishing off the project.

The third major beneficiary is Summit Entertainment, an independent film company based in Universal City, Los Angeles, who snapped up the rights to the series and have suddenly become one of the most powerful and profitable organisations in Hollywood outside of the “big six” major studios.

Each Twilight film costs a relatively modest sum to make, since they use little in the way of elaborate special effects and with a nod to their audience's demographic eschew expensive traditional marketing campaigns in favour of cheaper viral alternatives. The first film, Twilight, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, cost $37m and made back roughly $240m. But she was controversially sacked from the sequel and New Moon was given to Chris Weitz.

Summit, which was founded by Patrick Wachsberger, Robert Hayward, David Garrett as an international sales company in the mid 1990s, making films as a sideline, has therefore become one of those fairytale success stories that underlines how show-business remains an industry where unlikely dreams can come true.

For the first 12 years of its existence, the firm had often under-whelmed. Its roster included titles called Sex Drive and Never Back Down, which had sunk without trace, together with more successful efforts like Mr & Mrs Smith. But it was largely below the radar.

Now it boasts a guaranteed source of vast income, and a growing profile. A sequel to New Moon called Eclipse began shooting in August and is almost ready, with release scheduled for June. As many rivals struggle to raise capital, Summit has used its money to snap up new titles. Recently releaunched as Summit Entertainment LLC, it intends to to release 10 to 12 films a year in future.

This spring, Summit enjoyed unlikely success with a Nicolas Cage action film, Knowing, which was critically ridiculed but nonetheless went straight to number one at the box office. It has also shown a willingness to take a chance on more substantial projects, and was rewarded with the Iraq war film, The Hurt Locker, which is on many long-lists for the Oscar season.

Although Twilight may not have quite the merchandising potential of Harry Potter, it is selling Gothic-themed T-shirts like hotcakes and will no doubt spawn theme-park and video game spin-offs, to which Summit still owns many of the rights. DVD sales for the first film will also be strong this Christmas.

One of the main organisations cashing in on that trend will be the film’s British and Canadian distributor, Entertainment One, which reaps a proportion of box office sales (usually around 40 per cent) as well some of the takings from DVDs, broadcast and digital rights sales. Its shares leapt by 12 per cent in early trading yesterday on the back of the film’s surprisingly strong opening weekend.

But if that all sounds a little corporate, there is also at least one collection of Mom and Pop businessmen cashing in on the Twilight phenomenon. They are to be found in Forks, a remote town with a population of 3,000 outside the Olympic National Park in Washington state, the place where the novels are set. Forks – whose economy used to rely on timber and trout fishing – has become an international tourist destination, with 67,000 visitors trekking to its sleepy high street last year, taking part in “Twilight” bus tours, eating at restaurants named in the books, and going to the themed shops on the high street.

“There were all these empty storefronts.. [and now they] are filling up with Twilight stores,” Marcia Bingham, director of the Forks Chamber of Commerce, told Hollywood website TheWrap. “It’s been a wonderful thing,” And Testament, if it were ever needed, to the enduring profitablity of attractive young people, with or without fangs, who like to bite each other

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