- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2008

LOS ANGELES

Girl-meets-boy stories are not the usual stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, even when it’s girl-meets-vampire. Neither are stories created by women, with a predominantly female audience, shot on a bargain budget with a cast of relative unknowns and released by an independent distributor trying to establish a niche among Hollywood’s half-dozen studio behemoths.

Yet Summit Entertainment LLC has good reason to believe “Twilight” will have more box-office bite than the typical teen soap about an awkward high school babe and her cool new mystery beau.

The film - opening nationwide Friday - has a few stunts and clever visuals, but it’s far from the special-effects extravaganzas that dominate the movie business. It was shot for $37 million, a pittance compared with big-studio movies that can cost four or five times more.

What “Twilight” does offer is epic star-crossed romance, melodrama, peril, an attractive young cast and an action-packed finale. Mostly, though, it has arguably the most passionate fan base of any literary adaptation since “Harry Potter.”

“It’s like a little bizarre, little perfect-storm phenomenon,” says “Twilight” director Catherine Hardwicke, who began working on the project less than two years ago and has since seen the books grow from earnest cult status to rabid international fan base. “I knew some people loved it, but I didn’t know it would get this kind of crazy buzz.”

“Twilight” tells the story of Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), an introspective teen who moves from sunny Phoenix to cloudy Forks, Wash., to live with her divorced dad. At her new school, she is swept up in a supernatural romance with the aloof Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), part of a family of eternally young vampires fighting their nature by refusing to feed off humans.

Danger looms: Bella and Edward must keep their passion in check so he won’t succumb to the desire to drink her blood. In the meantime, he and his family are forced into action to protect Bella against a savage band of roving vampires.

The chief creative forces behind “Twilight” are women: director Hardwicke, screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (“Step Up,” TV’s “Dexter”) and author Stephenie Meyer, whose four books in the “Twilight” series have sold 18 million copies.

Schoolgirls were the first in the “Twilight” fold, drawn in by the all-consuming obsessiveness of Bella and Edward’s forbidden love.

“I was convinced before I ever met Stephenie that she was a mad person who completely believed she was Bella, and this was just her fantasy,” says Mr. Pattinson, best-known for playing Cedric Diggory in two of the “Harry Potter” films. “It’s kind of like voyeurism. … It seems like it’s something like a fan-fiction thing, which was never intended to be read by anyone.”

That was the exact intention of Miss Meyer, who wrote “Twilight” late at night while her husband and children slept.

Inspired by a dream she had about a “normal girl and a beautiful vampire that was in love with her and wanted to kill her,” Miss Meyer says she created the story for an audience of one.

“No one was going to read it except for me. That’s probably why it comes across as so intimate,” she says.

Things happened fast once she decided to publish “Twilight.” Even before the book came out, Hollywood came calling.

Summit Entertainment, a production outfit that had just expanded to film distribution, took over the project after it was shelved by MTV Films. Miss Hardwicke, who made the acclaimed teen drama “Thirteen,” came aboard to direct.

Since then, the project has taken a seemingly charmed course. Sales of the books surged; the audience broadened from girls to include older women; and another teenager, Harry Potter, graciously moved out of Bella’s way.

In late summer, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. decided to bump “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” from Nov. 21 to next July. Summit then moved “Twilight” from its Dec. 12 release to Friday, grabbing a prime date just before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest weekends of the year at movie theaters.

No one in Hollywood expects “Twilight” to put up numbers anywhere near a “Harry Potter,” whose five installments have averaged $90 million over opening weekend. Yet in a single weekend, “Twilight” could wind up matching or exceeding the total $48.8 million domestic grosses of Summit’s first five releases - including “Penelope,” the Christina Ricci fairy tale, which grossed $24.8 million - over their entire runs.

Girls and women are expected to dominate the audience, making “Twilight” a rare female-driven franchise. Women and girls accounted for 89 percent of advance “Twilight” sales at MovieTickets.com, says Joel Cohen, the company’s executive vice president.

Sales for “Twilight” have been brisk, with MovieTickets.com and competitor Fandango.com reporting hundreds of shows already sold out more than a week in advance. Both companies reported that “Twilight” initially was outselling “Quantum of Solace” even though the new James Bond flick opened a week earlier.

Summit has three potential sequels to make if “Twilight” does well enough, so the studio has sought to expand the audience further to pack in young males.

A solid male audience seems possible, considering that “Twilight” features a studly male with superpowers, a pack of ravenous bloodsuckers and fetching young women, both human and vampire.

“I don’t see it as only girl-oriented, because I think guys really like vampires, too, and they like hot girls,” Miss Hardwicke says.

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