Friday, October 19, 2012

Why The Twilight Saga film franchise mattered, what it accomplished, and why its legacy is ultimately a positive one.

In just a month, The Twilight Saga film franchise will come to an end.  Oh sure we may see spin-offs, reboots (probably in a different medium) and/or quasi-sequels in some form in another, but the five-part Edward/Bella saga will come to its apparent climax.  We can argue that few if any of the entries (including the unseen final chapter) were any good.  We can argue their morality and/or philosophy and debate what (mixed) messages the core audience took from the series as a whole.  But one cannot deny the cultural impact of the series.  Of all the countless fantasy films to follow in the wake of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, it is the only one of its ilk to actually make it past a second entry beyond The Chronicles of Narnia.  Heck, aside from the Aslan fables and the yet-unreleased second chapters in The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson, it is the only post-Potter/LOTR fantasy-lit series to even get a second chapter. But more than sheer staying power, The Twilight Saga was important in a number of ways, most of them actually net-positive. In the end, I firmly believe that the film industry is a better place because The Twilight Saga existed and flourished.

1. Low investment/high return:   In short, The Twilight Saga is every studio's dream.  In a time when studios routinely spend $175-$225 million chasing mega-franchise profits, Summit pulled off the ultimate coup, creating a top-tier blockbuster franchise for budgets usually associated with Oscar-bait prestige dramas or Adam Sandler comedies.  The first film cost just $37 million but pulled in $191 million in the US (following a gob-smacking $69 million opening weekend) and $392 million worldwide (more than Star Trek and Batman Begins, natch).  New Moon, at a cost of just $50 million, opened with a massive $142 million debut weekend (the third biggest debut of all time at that moment, more on that later), and ended up with $296 million domestic and $709 million worldwide. Eclipse earned another $300 million in the US and $698 million worldwide at a cost of $68 million while Breaking Dawn part I cost $110 million (not chump change, but inflated due to a big increase in salaries for the leads) and earned another $281 million in the US and $705 million worldwide.  With one film (and likely $650-800 million worldwide total box office gross) still to go, the franchise has made $1 billion in the US and $2.5 billion worldwide on a total cost of $264 million, or about what Disney spent producing John Carter.

The reason this all matters is that it is a strong antithesis to the idea that you have to spent massive amounts on random CGI spectacle in order to rake in blockbuster profits.  The Twilight films succeeded because audiences liked the core characters and felt their journey was one worth following.  With the arguable exception of the Transformers trilogy, the very biggest franchises were rooted in popular characters, with their actual plots and/or action sequences being almost beside the point (quick, name your favorite action scene in a Harry Potter film).  The Twilight Saga may have mediocre acting, shoddy special effects, and very little action, but they did have leads that audiences cared deeply about and a supporting characters worth spending time with, which is the cheapest special effect of all.  Come what may, The Twilight Saga is a wholly character-driven franchise, which is something to be celebrated no matter how much we do or don't like the movies themselves.  In a skewed way, Harry Potter and Twilight were the Lost/24 of fantasy franchises, as both triumphed over their imitators by setting a character-driven foundation before crafting their mythology, rather than starting with the head-spinning "what" before making sure audiences cared about the "who".

2.  Girls got to play too.   For pretty much as long as I've been following this business, the rule was "girls will see boys' movies, but boys won't see girls' movies".  That's how we got a film industry that seemingly caters to young men and treats its actresses like prize-winning stallions to be awarded to the hero at the end of his quest.  Countless bloggers and pundits have wrung their hands over the series and its hold on young women, endlessly debating the cultural implications and decrying the alleged immorality on display.  But I'd argue the answer is much simpler.  The Twilight Saga has women (plural for woman) in them.  Lots of women.  In a film industry when having even two major female characters in your 'mainstream' franchise is almost noteworthy, The Twilight Saga has countless female characters in lead and supporting roles.  And just as importantly, the film is actually told from the point of view of its female lead.  Want to know why Dirty Dancing still strikes a chord 25 years later?  It's because it's still one of the few mainstream films that tells a romantic and sexually-tinged drama from the point of view of a female protagonist.  Its frank and sympathetic narrative about burgeoning female sexuality (along with an abortion being the plot instigator) makes it play almost like liberal propaganda today.The Twilight Saga arguably struck a chord for the same reason, as well as the mere fact that, like the Harry Potter franchise, its cast didn't consist of a bunch of guys and the lone pretty girl for the plucking.

And its massive breakout success helped put an end to the idea that female-driven films cannot reach blockbuster numbers by virtue of their allegedly gender-exclusionary natures.  Even if not a single male saw New Moon on its opening weekend, it still would have been the biggest opening weekend of 2009 with $110 million.  With the success of Bridesmaids, The Twilight Saga, The Hunger Games, Brave, and Snow White and the Huntsman, we're seeing more than just a large number of female-centric films striking gold at the box office.  What matters is that these films are no longer being written off as some kind of anomaly and/or a fluke.  The idea that females go to the movies and in fact can drive major business is no longer a somewhat novel idea.  It's a small step as far too many films are so male-centric that they are better off without any women in the cast.  And we've already seen laughable attempts to capitalize on the franchise by telling a painfully similar story from the super-powered boy's point of view (think I Am Number Four).  But The Twilight Saga is the only major franchise that stars a female, is told from a female's perspective, and actually bothers to have a plethora of female speaking parts (as of now, even The Hunger Games surrounds Katniss with mostly male characters, although I cannot speak for the sequels).  I'd argue that much of the appeal of the series rests in merely being the lone current franchise where the female roles don't feel token in nature.  In The Twilight Saga, the male characters serve at the whims and needs of the female lead's story.  How often do we see that in big-budget cinema?

3. Let's discuss...!  Taken together, Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn part I have probably inspired more Internet and mainstream media chatter than any franchise in recent history.  The film's complicated morality, questionable romantic politics, and highly subjective quality has given way to countless essays, reviews, editorials, and even one bestselling fanfiction-turned-soft core  pornography series.  I've often noticed that we spend much time and energy theorizing about the success of anything that doesn't fit into the accepted mold.  Women can't enjoy 50 Shades of Gray purely because they have the same carnal yearnings that draws men to pornography, right?  And white teens can't enjoy rap music for the same reasons minority teens listen to it, right?  No one bothers to ask *why* young men and boys like the Transformers films or the Iron Man series (and of course women can only enjoy such films for their romantic elements, no?).  But a blockbuster series aimed and and readily devoured by females?  There must be a deep philosophical reason for that, so let's invent a thousand wacky theories that all basically aim to degrade the fans of this atypical series.  "Girls want to be Bella!  Girls are taking the stories' somewhat disconcerting romantic narratives as unimpeachable gospel!  While there may be a dark undercurrent to the gobs of words written about this franchise, as well as the automatic rejection of its (certainly debatable) artistic merits, the fact still remains that the series has created an entire sub-genre of film criticism.

And coming from it as a defender of sorts (I think it gets unduly picked on and condemned because it appeals to females), I've had more fun writing about the Twilight films than I have with perhaps any major franchise since I started this blog.  I've written both about the problems with the films themselves as well as the sometimes goofy critical reaction to the pictures ("Wow, Bella is a horrible role model!  Oooh, isn't Drive romantic?!").  I've written about whether or not the film explicitly endorses its own narrative (Anna Kendrick seemingly exists purely to poke fun at the story) and whether or not the judgment the series faces is rooted in the fact that Bella embraces, rather than running away from, traditional gender roles.  I've written about whether or not Bella is indeed a feminist creation it its purest form (IE - she gets to choose her own life path with the relative support of those around her).  And of course pretty much every other critic, pundit, and blogger has put their two cents in sometime over the last four years.  If we reluctantly admit that Prometheus  was at least a success in that it got us talking about the film for weeks on end, if we acknowledge that The Dark Knight Rises inspired two weeks of non-stop chatter about the film's strengths and flaws (as well as alleged subtexts), then we must acknowledge that the Stephanie Meyer series has caused more people to talk about movies in some form or another than pretty much any other major film or franchise in the last five years.

4. A franchise like no other, for now.  Come what may, there has never been a major franchise quite like The Twilight Saga.  It is not a superhero adventure based on a comic book.  It is not a mega-budget fantasy loosely based in Campbellian heroic archetypes.  It is not an ongoing slasher/horror franchise that sets up ever-more creative/elaborate means for people to die.  It is a Gothic romantic drama primarily aimed at women and girls.  It uses its token vampire/werewolf elements purely as metaphor, be it for the 'danger' of consensual premarital intercourse or the inability of men to control themselves in the company of women they desire (if I had to pick out the most bothersome strand of the franchise, that would be it).  Its success is not rooted in special effects or escalating action, but rather the characters that inhabit its universe.  For better or worse, and I would argue for better, the franchise is absolutely unlike any other current blockbuster would-be franchise.  And if it is indeed to inspire a legion of imitators in its wake, let's look at the kind of films we'll soon be getting.  Properties like Beautiful Creatures, Ender's Game (yes, that's not a new literary phenomenon) How I Live Now, and The Mortal Instruments.  These are all young-adult fantasy franchises, many of which revolve around female leads and all of which have ample room in their large casts for any number of fine actors to jump on-board for an extended cameo or a major supporting role, depending on their fancy.  Some may work while some may not (Percy Jackson was an epic disaster, sequel plans notwithstanding), but what a journey it will be finding out.

The Twilight Saga stood apart as an anomaly, a powerful statement against what was conventional wisdom in terms of what kinds of movies could bring about blockbuster business.  Be it a good series or a bad one, whether its philosophies on relationships were merely complicated or out-and-out immoral, the series stood alone against an onslaught on boy-friendly hero's journey epics.  For the oncoming onslaught on female-driven franchises, which will hopefully provide a wide-variety of female heroes and villains, we can thank The Twilight Saga.  For four years of endlessly engaging essays, reviews, blog posts, and think-pieces, we can thank The Twilight Saga.  For providing a geek culture gateway drug for girls who otherwise wouldn't have been caught dead at a fantasy or comic-book convention (as opposed to girls who of course were already immersed in geek culture), we can thank The Twilight Saga.  For existing as a proudly 2D franchise even as nearly every other would-be blockbuster series went the 3D route, we can thank The Twilight Saga. If for no other reason, the adventures of Bella, Edward, and Jacob were very much responsible for disproving the myth that girls and women can't power a franchise to towering heights  that you needed boys to top the box office, that fantasy stories told from a female's point of view should be relegated to the small screen, and that girl-centric films shouldn't be taken seriously when discussing major tent pole film-making.

The Jazz Singer was not the best sound film of all-time.  Journey to the Center of the Earth was not the best 3D film of the modern era.  Dr. No is not the best James Bond film.  The very first, or the first major example, of any kind of film is rarely the best.  There will be female-centric franchises that are better than Twilight.  They will have female characters who are better developed and perhaps better role models than Bella Swan.  But few can deny that the swarm of female-led franchise pictures would have come to pass without the blockbuster success of Twilight.  So no matter what you think of the films themselves (and I rather enjoy Catherine Hardwicke's wickedly funny original entry), no matter if you think they endorsed potentially harmful paternalistic philosophies (or if you believe that Anna Kendrick and/or Billy Burke's sympathetic father served to implicitly rebut Bella's choices), for four years The Twilight Saga mattered in a way wholly different than those who played in the same blockbuster sandbox.  And, come what may, its overall legacy will likely be a positive one.

Scott Mendelson


coldplums said...

Great piece. As you point, much much ink has been spilled over this franchise--but I do think you've really succinctly brought out the ways in which Twilight really has been a unique phenomenon in ways that hasn't always been discussed previously. Your point #2 is especially spot-on--plus I thought your reading of Dirty Dancing was completely right!--Twilight is a character-driven female fantasy; and whatever one might think of either the characters or the fantasy in question, it obviously parts ways with the prevailing adolescent-male-fantasy driven film market.
True, none of the individual films are likely to make an AFI or BFI 'greatest films' list decades from now (though I also like the first one the best, and think it will live on in all its camp glory), but I do think its cultural impact will become increasingly apparent as we look back.

Ruth said...

Great analysis, as always. I agree that Twilight gets much harder criticism for being female-centric than equally fluffy male-centered fantasies. I love that my daughters will have movies to watch where they get to imagine themselves as more than the sexy prize for the hero. Thank goodness for Twilight, flawed as it is, for that.

Barb said...

Finally an analysis that is well thought out and not biased with male superiority BS. These may not be Oscar worthy but when The Hangover and The Blind Side were nominated I stop being ashamed of my Twilight addiction

Scott Mendelson said...

The Hangover was not nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture that year.

LuciferRising said...

This is the reason I frequently visit your blog. Fantastic piece.
Twilight first arrived when I was 18 and I just saw it purely for Kristen, who I think is an incredible actress. I didn't know anything about the movie, so didn't have any bias or preconceived notions before going in to the theater. By the end of the movie, I was truly in love with it (you know you are really into it when you tear up and the only movie before that where I was overwhelmed was again Kristen's, 'Speak'). I couldn't believe it when people hurled insults just because I was a male who loved it and actually never hid my love for it. If somebody asked me what was my favorite movie of 2008, I'd say The Dark Knight and Twilight, equally which got me into a lot heated arguments. The first movie was very quirky and superior in storytelling compared to the others imo, but Bella and her life were still compelling. I picked up the books and loved them as well. You know its not a very good piece of literature, but when you read them or watch the movies, you're immersed in that world and couldn't give a damn to rationality and isn't that what you want from any form of entertainment! I, for one, am very glad for what Twilight did to female-oriented movies and especially for making Kristen a star.

astrid said...

Interesting thoughts! I especially agree with your theories on female-driven movies.


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