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Cross Post: Why The Twilight Saga Film Franchise Mattered, What it Accomplished, and Why its Legacy is Ultimately a Positive One

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by Scott Mendelson
October 23, 2012 11:15 AM
8 Comments
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"Twilight"
"Twilight"

In just one 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.

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 andBatman 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."

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?

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8 Comments

  • KiraAS | October 25, 2012 8:49 PMReply

    I couldn't help but mention the strong female character "Number Six" who was in "I Am Number Four." She comes in at the end, but is definitely a power force. I don't think the movie was big enough for a sequel, but it came from a book as well and the sequel to it is about the girl "Number Six" kicking ass and taking names.

  • Scott Mendelson | October 26, 2012 11:02 AM

    Theresa Palmer's third act entrance is the only thing that kept me awake during that dreadfully dull picture...

  • Bes | October 25, 2012 12:01 AMReply

    I really enjoyed the Twilight series. Catherine's first film was by far the best. I doubt we will see another series from a female perspective soon. It should be noted though that Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games were all written by women writers. God save us from the male written "female perspective" crap, How many times do they have to fail at these movies before they stop make them.

  • Lesley W. | October 24, 2012 7:41 PMReply

    I would have to disagree about Twilight versus the Hunger Games. In addition to Katniss, there are Rue, Primm, Glimmer, Clover and FoxFace in book 1, and then Katniss's mother, several additional Tributes in Book 2, and a rebel leader in books 2 and 3 (sorry don't remember their names). Also, I would argue that the breadth and variety of women (different races, different ages, good guys, bad guys, politicos, soldiers) is much greater in HG than in Twilight. Most importantly, Katniss's key relationships are with her female friends and family; her feelings for the 2 male "love interests" are never as strong as they are for her little sister Primm or her surrogate sister Rue. Bella on the other hand, is completely in the thrall of a man, and the emotional weight of the story hinges on her desperation to be with him at any costs. There are no female/female relationships in the Twilight series with anywhere near that intensity.

  • KiraAS | October 25, 2012 8:38 PM

    I completely agree with this. It's exactly what I was thinking while reading the article. The movie portrays only part of The Hunger Games book. Katniss is a deep-thinking young woman and through the books you almost get the feeling that she's annoyed at her romantic feelings for Gale and Peeta while trying to find her own way. In the second and third book she becomes VERY close to another female character, Johanna (I think?). The leader of the revolution is also a woman and even with her two suitors Katniss stays with her mother and sister. I don't want to give anything away if people haven't read the books or are just waiting for the movie, but written through Katniss's eyes she is torn at her decisions to fight and be vocal on her own and gets confused and I said it before, but almost annoyed that she has these men in her life that are both seeking her out. It isn't until the very end when she figures herself out does she then open the door to a real romantic relationship.

  • Jane | October 24, 2012 6:38 PMReply

    I completely disagree with this post. I don't believe a film is best for women based on the number of women in it, but rather the quality of women. Bella Swan is a woman who is completely dependent on having a man. She becomes depressed and incapable of doing anything when Edward leaves. She is obsessed with Edward, even putting herself into danger because of it. The writer of this article tries to insist this book is better for women than say Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Narnia. And yet she forgets the wondrous women characters in those stories: Hermione who is smart and sensible even when her crush doesn't pay much attention to her, Eowyn who disguises herself as a man to go off to battle even in face of the fact that Aragorn doesn't love her, and Lucy who is complete without any romantic interest along with countless others (Mrs. Weasley, Ginny, Luna etc.). I don't care how many females are in my movies, just give me females who are strong, who stand up for themselves, who recognize their worth in the things they do and not on male attention or beauty.

  • KiraAS | October 25, 2012 8:46 PM

    You hit the nail on the head with this one. I didn't read the Twilight books and just tagged along to see the movies, but crashing a motorcycle and jumping off a cliff just to see a glimpse of the man she loves and waking up screaming because he left... That's not a strong woman to me. I didn't read Harry Potter either and saw a couple movies, but Hermione was studious and smart but also attractive and a possible love interest and went under the criticism of being from parents that were "muggles" (did I get that right?) so she had to find her own ground. And wasn't a woman one of the head professors? "The Cleveland Show" did a Halloween spoof of a girl jumping off a cliff saying "This is how the movies told me to find a boyfriend!" She landed on a rock...

  • Linn D. | October 23, 2012 2:29 PMReply

    What a great cross-post. Thanks for sharing. I had not stopped to fully look at the franchise from this perspective. Very inspiring. I look forward to more films in the future from a female POV. (since I happen to be one who buys movie tickets)

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