Make no mistake folks: The Twilight Saga is and will always remain every studio exec’s ultimate wet dream. Shot in Vancouver “on the cheap” and starring a surprisingly small number of actors just lucky to be there when they signed on the dotted line, it managed to carve its place into global pop culture history and make millions of girls swoon about the relationships they felt they deserve, not the ones they’re likely dealing with. The original chapter cost the studio $37 million to make and raked in over $392 million worldwide. When it was all said and done, the shirtless set of films earned Summit Entertainment a whopping $3.34 billion dollars, which is more than Disney would have made had they been able to release The Avengers twice.
The arousing part is not the billion dollar figure but the low-cost, no hassle production it took to earn it. Not only did Twilight bring in the kind of numbers only reserved to the exclusive gentlemen’s club of Marvel Heroes, Harry Potter and Star Wars, but it surprisingly did so without having to shell out a 150 to 250 million dollar budget before seeing a red cent. If the movie business is about big gambles, Summit’s hedge bet on the Twilight Saga is the most low-risk, high-return franchise since the original Star Wars hit the silver screen in 1977. And if you think the budgets started to skyrocket as soon as the CGI wolves joined the party and competent directors signed on so they could renovate their kitchen cabinets, think again. The Twilight Saga: New Moon cost a slim-fitting 50 million dollars and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse wrapped up with a svelte 68 million dollars. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn was the only chapter in the series whose needs for a large scale final sequence tipped the invoices over the 100M mark.
When George Lucas made Star Wars, no one believed it would eventually provoke such a seismic wave of cultural relevance and profitability. After it did, however, other studio execs called emergency meetings and started plotting their bandwagon ticket to the big pot of Tatooine gold. Disney gave audiences The Black Hole which starred what could only be described as a genetic cross between R2-D2 and a Sesame Street garbage can. The quest to confuse less knowledgeable moviegoers was also in full swing with such releases as Star Odyssey, Starcrash, Starchaser and Battle Beyond The Stars hitting theaters in a hurry. While we can look back and laugh at these failed attempts, the intent of the studio at the time was to own THE new space opera franchise in town.
Fast forward to present day where every studio has been trying to jump onto the Twilight Express. In 2013, we had four wide releases so far who were clearly green-lit with the intent of reproducing the same kind of success: The Host, Beautiful Creatures, Warm Bodies, and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Plenty more are still on their way including The Vampire Academy, The Dark Divine and Evermore. Thirty years from now, we will be inflicted with a brand new remake of The Twilight Saga and all these other titles will have been buried and forgotten. What are studios missing here?
I always assume an executive boardroom at a major studio only has two agenda items: 1) What are kids buying these days? and 2) Where’s my version of that? While this is certainly how the product industry (such as food or toy companies) need to behave in order to remain competitive, the rules of success become significantly more blurry when you’re dealing with a successful movie adaptation. You can use the superhero genre as proof that once it took off, everyone who jumped on the bandwagon got a big slice of pie in the past decade but it only remains relevant to characters that people have genuinely loved on a massive scale for decades. Studios have been wise to understand that and steered clear from giving lesser known superheroes their own movie. What they did instead was to make them supporting cast in a few movies and group them together within one universe.
Book adaptations are a little bit tricky because there’s no way you can merge their worlds together without angering the fans. You have to put your product out there standing on its own, and your strategy to jump on the bandwagon means that you’re hoping to draw comparisons with the one that started it all. Consumers will seek the real thing, and therefore your end goal can only be to confuse them. When there was a greek yogurt marketing craze last year, every yogurt company started pushing out their version and suddenly the labels all looked the same. The average consumer will make their purchase based on the fact that all six yogurts will likely taste the same and might walk out of the supermarket with another brand than the one they had intended to buy. With movies, however, fans are so emotionally invested that they will not only manage to see the difference between the real thing and the knock-offs, but retaliate against those trying to cash in. The reaction across the aboard seems to have always been “we’re not stupid, this isn’t Star Wars or Twilight.” followed by a courteous “nice try” or the more commonly uttered “fuck off.”
Jeff Bock, who works as a box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, said it best when Beautiful Creatures bombed back in February: “When you’re pushing your film as a Twilight knockoff, which WB’s press machine so blatantly did over the last couple weeks, it can actually enrage the Twi-hards, who vehemently defend their cherished cinematic turf,” Bock says. The key difference between greek yogurt and movie franchises is the emotional investment that your core base of fans feel towards your product. I am sure the people who introduced greek yogurt on the market and saw lazy competitors knock-off their concept must have been emotionally invested in the situation, but as far as consumer products go, that negative sentiment doesn’t reach anywhere beyond. With something like Twilight, it’s a sense of resentment that can reach a very large scale and ruin a movie before it opens.
But what about The Hunger Games? Well, there’s an interesting variation on how Lionsgate managed to build themselves the next big Hollywood golden goose. Suzanne Collins had already sold a few million copies of her trilogy when they acquired the rights and the media immediately pointed out how it could potentially become the next Twilight. After all, we have a female heroine fighting her way through extraordinary threats while falling for two completely different male counterparts. It’s as if Lionsgate had understood the principle of greek yogurt not translating to the movie business, because they released a marketing campaign that had much more in common with George Orwell than Stephenie Meyer. They went all-out on the science-fiction elements, emphasized the commentary on social classes and pushed the movie towards a male audience. The result is that it became a new phenomenon of its own, not a derivative of what had already been making a profit.
At the time of publishing this piece, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is currently on track for a tepid 13.9 million dollar five-day opening. Put me in the camp of those who wish that money could have gone towards something new and original instead, something we haven’t seen yet. It’s incredibly lame to copy greek yogurt when you’re only one or two years away from another flavor taking off and your company could be making it before everyone else.
As Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky used to say: “I score because I don’t go where the puck is. I go where the puck is going to be.”
– The Sleepy Skunk