The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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How the big studios missed the boat on 'Twilight'

November 17, 2008 | 11:35 am

Up until now, Summit Entertainment hasn't exactly set the movie world on fire. Run by veteran sales agent Patrick Wachsberger and former Paramount vice chairman Rob Friedman, the new indie distributor and finance company has struggled to prove that it can compete with the studio behemoths in the marketplace. Of its five releases, only one, the mixed martial arts film "Never Back Down," was a modest success, grossing about $25 million in the U.S. The company's most recent release, the teen comedy "Sex Drive," was a bomb, making barely $8 million after opening on nearly 2,500 screens.

But Summit has an amazing ace up its sleeve--"Twilight." If you know a teenager, I need not say more. If you don't, the sound you hear in the distance is the approaching pop culture tsunami. Written by Stephenie Meyer, "Twilight" is the first in a series of enormously popular vampire love stories that are now poised to spawn one of the hottest Hollywood literary franchises since "Harry Potter." Directed by Catherine Hardwicke ("13" and "Lords of Dogtown"), "Twilight" arrives on 5,500 screens this Friday, with the industry already abuzz with reports about spectacular advance ticket sales. During the past few weeks I've been hearing from studio marketing chiefs, who all seem in awe of the word-of-mouth groundswell for the film.

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When the film's young stars, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, showed up at Comic-Con last July, they were greeted by Beatlemania-style screams. Last week 10,000 kids showed up at a mall in Dallas to mob them. They've been on the cover of Entertainment Weekly and a variety of teen tabloids as well as all over MTV. (Here's our dispatch earlier this year from the film set.) But what's amazing is that one of Hollywood's biggest studios had the project for years and simply let it go. "Twilight" was originally at Paramount's MTV Films, which spent nearly two years trying to develop the picture before the studio put the project in turnaround. A second studio, Fox Atomic, also passed on the project before it came Summit's way.

It wasn't as if "Twilight's" teen appeal was exactly a secret. The second novel in Meyer's series, "New Moon," debuted at No. 5 on the New York Times bestseller list for children's books when it was released in 2006. It hit No. 1 the following week and remained in the top position for 11 straight weeks. The fourth installment, "Breaking Dawn," sold 1.3 million copies in its first day of release. The entire series has now sold 8.5 million copies in the U.S., more than 17 million copies worldwide.

So how did this budding literary phenomenon practically drop in Summit's lap? Keep reading:

 

Long before "Twilight" hit the bookstores in 2005, MTV Films chief David Gale had read the novel in manuscript form and optioned the movie rights. MTV was always looking for teen-friendly film properties and Gale felt the book had a great mix of genre elements--notably the vampire angle--and a surprisingly sweet take on teen romance. (For a far more learned assessment of the books' appeal, read this review from our Word Play columnist Sonja Bolle, who knows light years more than me about young adult fiction. Full disclosure--she's, ahem, my wife.)

"This is one of those projects we were especially passionate about," says Gale, who now is an exec VP of new media at MTV. "We put a writer [Mark Lord] on the project, who did a couple of drafts. We never got the script where we wanted it, but when it came time to renew the option, we needed Paramount's approval and, for whatever reasons, we couldn't get a commitment, so the project went into turnaround. I'm disappointed that we didn't end up making the picture, but I'm thrilled that someone saw it through and that's it's turned out to be such a big event."

As is often the case when a studio lets a hit slip through its hands, no one wants to take the blame. Gale would not say who at Paramount refused to renew the option. But I spoke to three ex-Paramount executives who all pointed the finger at Brad Weston, now the studio's production chief. Weston insists he never killed the project, saying it was the responsibility of Scott Aversano, who succeeded Gale as president of MTV Films and Nickelodeon Movies and is now an independent producer on the lot. However, by the studio's own timeline, the project was put in turnaround in early 2006. Aversano didn't take over MTV Films until late August 2006 and had no functional budget to buy projects until the year's end. MTV executives who were involved with the project say Weston questioned the genre's commercial prospects, telling them to watch "Cursed," a 2005 teen-oriented werewolf film that he'd made while an executive at Dimension Films that had failed at the box office. 

Paramount may have let the project slip through its hands, but "Twilight" turned out to have a lot of former Paramount benefactors as it made its way into production. Karen Rosenfelt, a longtime Paramount production executive, became attached to the project as a producer in the fall of 2006. Since she has a producer deal at Fox, Rosenfelt first took the project to Fox Atomic. When that company passed, she quickly set up a meeting in October of that year with Erik Feig, who had joined Summit as its production chief. Feig took the project to his boss, Summit CEO Rob Friedman, who'd been a top Paramount executive for years before leaving the studio in the turmoil following studio chief Sherry Lansing's departure.

"Karen was really passionate about the project and so was Erik," Friedman recalls. "The whole premise--a Romeo and Juliet story set in the vampire world--felt like a movie. So we went to Stephenie to get the rights. She had some trepidation, not being especially excited after her first studio experience, so we really made an effort to make her comfortable with our approach."

Summit brought in a new writer, Melissa Rosenberg, to write an adaptation, which in turn attracted the interest of Hardwicke. Friedman said Summit took great pains to keep Meyer involved, as Warner Bros. has done with "Harry Potter" creator J.K. Rowling. "We've worked with her in lockstep from day one," he says. "We recognized early on that she was a tremendous asset and had a strong voice with her fan base. The fans are your first audience, so you want them to be happy. We've involved Stephenie in everything, from the script to casting to production. We see her as our partner."

"Twilight" has retained a kinship with Harry Potter all the way through to its release date. The film was originally scheduled for release on Dec. 12, but when Warners pushed back "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" from this month to next July, Summit quickly moved "Twilight" on to its date, giving it access to even more theaters than it would have had in December. Friedman is coy about how quickly Summit will move ahead with a sequel, saying he'll worry about that the day after "Twilight" opens in theaters. But Summit already has the rights to the rest of the series and has "Twilight's" lead actors under contract for sequels as well. News leaked out Friday that Summit has already commissioned scripts for the next two books from Rosenberg.

Paramount's loss is Summit's potential windfall. It's not exactly a news flash that studios miss the boat on valuable properties--Warner Bros. famously gave away "Home Alone," which went on to become a fabulously successful franchise at 20th Century Fox. The "Twilight" blunder simply underscores how badly Paramount mismanaged its MTV brand. By refusing to give MTV Films any true autonomy (the same approach it took with its failed Paramount Classics specialty division), the studio blew an opportunity to extend the valuable youth-culture clout of its MTV network into film production. The irony of all ironies is that the beneficiary of Paramount's "Twilight" fumble is Friedman, who was one of the top Paramount execs who kept MTV Films and Paramount Classics on such a tight leash.

But give Friedman credit--he's cannily adapting to his new surroundings, far more willing today to embrace fresh ideas than he was at Paramount. He's sort of the Hollywood equivalent of T. Boone Pickens, the conservative oil tycoon suddenly turned alternative energy booster.  For now, Friedman is busy trying to keep expectations from spinning out of control. Its not often that one of the new kids on the block lands a gigantic potential franchise, but Friedman plans to take full advantage of their good fortune. "It's the great thing about Hollywood," he says. "Sometimes things happen when they're supposed to happen. It was just the right moment in time for us."    

Photo of  Robert Pattinson in "Twilight" from Summit Entertainment

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