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The Twilight Legacy: How It's Changing Cinema
Love it or loathe it, Twilight might make the movies better...

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WORDS HELEN O'HARA
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Twilight, Bella and Edward

The Twilight series is a pivot point in cinema, and it's time we acknowledge it as such. It was the first film of a trend that is becoming a wave that may become, in the distant future, something perfectly normal: the female-focused franchise. Twilight was the first multi-part, billion-dollar franchise that was aimed at and led by women, and which hit big at the box office. There had been a few direct-to-DVD cartoon series (Disney's TinkerBell efforts), a few rom-coms to get a single sequel (Bridget Jones, for instance) and a few minor teen efforts, but since Twilight hit we've had The Hunger Games and attempts to launch girl franchises in everything from Confessions Of A Shopaholic (admittedly that didn't make it beyond a first effort) to Snow White And The Huntsman to, soon, 50 Shades Of Grey (the best-selling book in this country ever. Make of that what you will). Instead of standing around marvelling and scratching their heads when a Mamma Mia! or a Devil Wears Prada does well, filmmakers are actively seeking out properties that target women and have sequel potential.

The highest-grossing films of all time are overwhelmingly the ones that appeal to both sexes.
This is not to say that a franchise or a sequel necessarily in itself a good thing, and no one is saying that franchise-crafting is the best or only way to make films. But the new approach marks a shift, and perhaps the beginnings of a sea-change, in how big tentpole films are made and who they're made for.

It's a truism and a cliche that blockbusters over the past couple of decades have been aimed and marketed primarily at teenage boys. Star Wars is generally credited as the first film to establish this fact, rightly or wrongly, and it’s been the driving force behind everything from Batman to Transformers to American Pie. But boys have become a less reliable audience than they were 10 or 20 years ago. That demographic is now, often, staying at home and playing games as their principal form of entertainment. They still go to the cinema, of course, for films that appeal to them - but their attendance in droves is no longer a guarantee and no longer the only reliable engine of box-office success.

Combined with the threat of piracy and that of home entertainment, the studios have been keenly aware that even where takings are bigger, audiences are getting smaller. Adjust for inflation and suddenly Avatar falls from the biggest film ever to 14th on the list, Gone With The Wind still marking a high-point in movie-making history. It’s become increasingly obvious that Hollywood can’t afford to cater only to the (hitherto) most reliable and lucrative market.

What's more, the boys’ films seem to demand higher and higher budgets. With the exception of occasional comedies that hit big, male-oriented blockbusters tend to have huge effects costs (and most of those hit comedies have big star budgets). These higher price tags are, at least partially, connected to games once again. Game designers can take players to alien worlds, total wars, exotic locations or historical periods for no more than the cost of a contemporary-set game (less, maybe, since creating photo-realistic reality is particularly challenging for designers). If Hollywood is going to compete, it has to be bigger, better and more exciting – and that means money.

So the studios are delighted that a new audience has emerged who turn out in big numbers for cheaper films. Make fun of ‘crazy’ Twi-hards all you like, but around that hard-core of fans there's a much larger, more balanced crowd for whom Twilight is merely something they enjoy with varying levels of pride. And incidentally, you shouldn’t make fun of those fans. They’re no crazier than the Trekkers, Star Wars fans and comic-book guys who drove geekdom to its current high status in the culture. In the same way that a teenage love of Transformers does not equate to a lack of intelligence / soul / the hope of one day growing up, Twilight has sometimes been a gateway drug into better geekery for girls. Like Potter before it, Twilight’s a gateway (geekway?) drug. Liked Twilight? Try Dracula, The Lost Boys. Try Near Dark.

Hollywood's salvation may just be this new crowd, still often indifferent to gaming and at least behind the guys in terms of addiction to it; still going to the cinema in big numbers whenever someone bothers making a film for them, and also still signalling what they're interested in by reading books in larger numbers than any other social group.

Behind The Scenes on The Return Of The King

Twilight's children: Hollywood now has an abundance of novels aimed at young, female readers to adapt which hope to be the next big thing.

The fact that women, especially young women, are reading in huge numbers may be key. Hollywood has consistently failed (so far) to turn games into good movies, and while their comics record is much better, they're getting to the bottom of the bucket of obviously commercial comic-book characters. Sure, they're still trotting out superheroes like they're on fire (which sometimes they are) but they've gone through the big reliable characters and are beginning to start rebooting those and teaming them up in new groupings. Those left unfilmed are, for the most part, not massively familiar names (Moon Knight, anyone?). Books matter again as a source of film inspiration. Of course, Harry Potter proved a gargantuan success - but a series like that, on page or on screen, only comes along once in a generation and actually isn't as replicable as studios might like. Although executives are searching desperately for "the next Harry Potter", attempts to replicate that formula have floundered (Percy Jackson, The Vampire's Apprentice, The Spiderwick Chronicles, arguably The Golden Compass).

What is working, however, are adaptations of Potter's literary successors, those books that don't stick to the model of JK Rowling's series but which Potter fans turned to once they finished with Harry and friends. Those who became addicted to reading thanks to the boy wizard cast about for their next series as they've grown older, and they found stuff like Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Host (due soon), Divergent (in development with Summit), Daughter Of Smoke And Bone (Universal has the rights), The Spook's Apprentice (filmed as The Seventh Son), The Mortal Instruments (shooting now), Wicked Lovely (in development), Warm Bodies (in post-production) and more. Lots of these stories have female protagonists, but they're not girly, (all) romantically neurotic or endlessly obsessed with shoes and boys; they're actual characters. And they're sufficiently dissimilar that we expect them to have a higher hit-rate than the Potter-clones. We're potentially looking at mainstream films aimed at women that aren't shallow or offensive!

And what we're also starting to see, in an even bigger change, is that men may be tempted to go see the films that result. The high water mark so far is The Hunger Games, which is the best of these films in terms of quality and one of the most successful in terms of box office. Three more instalments are already underway (the final book has, inevitably, been split in two) and while the fans are not as eardrum-shattering as the Twi-hards, they do seem as enthusiastic in a quieter way. The Hunger Games, too, was a film that men didn't have to be embarrassed about seeing, what with the action and life-or-death stakes and general lack of moping about over sparkly vampires, but that girls could still watch and see themselves in. So maybe it's not female leads that turn male viewers off, but bad female leads. 

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games, too, was a film that men didn't have to be embarrassed about seeing.
Such a knack for appealing to both men and women is worth seeking out. The highest-grossing films of all time are overwhelmingly the ones that appeal to both sexes – your Avatars, your Titanics, your Harry Potters. You don’t guarantee success by ignoring either gender, and women have been overlooked outside of formulaic rom-coms for too long.

Hunger Games is another success that Hollywood is scrambling to replicate now; witness Divergent's development in particular, since that feels very strongly similar in tone to Suzanne Collins' series. The Hunger Games' success suggests that the Twilight phenomenon is replicable in a way that Potter was not; that books attracting a similar audience to a previous hit, but not themselves strongly reminiscent of that hit, can become big in their turn.

What we might also see thanks to Twilight and a string of female-focused hits is Hollywood beginning to treat women like a demographic that matters at all in blockbuster films. As an example of how this can work, you might have noticed in the past few years that more and more blockbusters are globe-trotting to China or Russia (for example: Battleship, The Dark Knight, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, The Karate Kid, The Darkest Hour and Transformers: Dark Of The Moon all feature scenes in one of the two) because China and Russia are now important markets for Hollywood blockbusters. Following that logic, if women become a valuable demographic for the studios, maybe we'll see women in male-targeted action movies or thrillers not simply defined as Wife, Girlfriend or Mother. Maybe the character composition of these films will change from a statistically unrepresentative 25 percent female (or so) to a more-like-it 50 percent. Judging by Dredd this year, female characters don’t have to derail the manliness.

If Twi-hards are the tip of a demographic iceberg of potential filmgoers, they could prove to be the saviours of the studios and a transformative force in big-screen cinema. If the big studios can be find a healthy audience for their mid-budgeted, female-friendly novel adaptation, then maybe they'll have the money to make Halo or The Authority. If studios successfully recruit new a reliable new film-going demographic, that's more money in the coffers and a more secure base on which to risk ambitious, big-budget concepts from original filmmakers.

Twilight is a good thing, long term. It could usher in a slightly more equal era of cinema going, and could see better films being made that appeal to much of the same audience but don't exclude men. If it offers a new and alternative model for filmmaking sucess, that could make Hollywood more flexible and more inclusive - just as studios are also trying to attract older fans with the likes of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet. Ultimately, any attempt by Hollywood to widen its focus and cater to a bigger crowd must be a good thing for the health of cinema overall.

We’re still not convinced about the whole magic-werewolf-baby-love thing though.
 

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Your Comments

21 RE: Never thought of it like that
L: Brianfantana I can't say that I've seen Twilight, or wanted to, but I don't hate it How open-minded! More

Posted by Timon on Friday November 16, 2012, 09:08

22 Do we really need more Twilight coverage?
L: Helen OHara If you actually read the article, you'll see that nowhere do I suggest that Twilight ITSELF is a strong representation of women onscreen or the model to go by (actually I think Kristen Stewart's Bella is a stronger character than she's given credit for but that's another discussion). elen While I agree on some points I feel like you're one of those people who feel like they have to justify their love of utter trash with overly long articles that throw around popular ideas like female empowerment in a very vague manner. Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey are undeniably popular but that isn't the same as actually being good. I have no problem with people who enjoy them and accept that they're guilty pleasures. What I do have a problem with are people who celebrate them as if they're misunderstood pieces of art that don't deserve the criticism they receive. I could write an essay on all of Twilight's faults but I'll try and keep it to the point... More

Posted by Quentin Black on Thursday November 15, 2012, 22:10

23 In a different light
Oh Helen, Every so often, you do a piece that makes me have a little think and this one has done the same. I do understand alot of of the points you make and sometimes the disdain of fans between the franchises TwiHards vs PotterHeads which would make a most excellent Running Man type gameshow, reminds me of the scene in Clerks 2 with Star Wars in the form of Randall against LOTR customer (minus vomit). The main thing though that got my heart a flutter here is "then maybe they'll have the money to make Halo or The Authority"...That's the stuff that gets the heart racing. Thanks again More

Posted by Chan_Solo on Thursday November 15, 2012, 12:32

24 Now that you mention it...
I would never have thought of, or would like to have thought of, "Twilight" as having a positive effect on cinema. However, this is a pretty strong argument in some respects. And though it's a little offensive to equate the fans of Twilight to those of stronger franchises such as Star Wars, Star Trek, etc. it makes sense that those fans can be compared to the mania of more respected series. One thing that sort of brushed me a little wrong was that there was no mention of 'Lord of the Rings" as a wildly successful series, highly respected and appealing to both genders. To me, that is the perfect example of a series that falls in the sci-fi/fantasy genre that took its entire audience seriously, male and female alike. It recognized that women also enjoy amped up battles, special effects and dark creatures just as men can appreciate high drama, passion and strong female characters. Ok, admittedly there was a ton of eye candy for women, but beyond that... In response to rwMore

Posted by lynnsure on Tuesday November 13, 2012, 20:52

25 Yeah, right
This article was kinda long so I skimmed thru it but a point seemed to be that more media consumer products for women will result in better media consumer products overall. Is this some kind of joke? Hollywood constantly milks and exploits the worst traits in both sexes towards maximum profit via continuous crap output. The common denominator in most cases is consumer idealism, disguised or not. Would Batman be as popular if he was a homeless man sleeping rough? Would Bond be as popular if he tried to save taxpayer ££'s by shopping at TK Maxx? I haven't watched Twilight or read 50 Shades of Shite, but I'm guessing there's materialism stuff going on there too. I think conventional romantic ideals tie in deeply with consumerism, so that accounts for the likes of Titanic and Avatar being so popular. The best movie I've seen in the last 10 years that had a female protaganist is Pan's Labrynth(sp?). I couldn't see the twi-tard generation rushing to watch something like that thMore

Posted by Normal Control on Tuesday November 13, 2012, 17:29

26 The Joss Whedon effect
I'm not overly qualified to comment on the piece, having avoided Twilight like the plague and not recognising many of the wave-riding series coming thereafter, but I'd say that the role of TV has possibly been overlooked. I suppose I'm talking about the likes of Buffy and Alias, which were fantastic bodies of work in their own right - but perhaps laying the foundations for people of either gender to watch and enjoy shows centred around female characters. Buffy is probably also responsible for the regeneration of the pop culture cool of vampires which continues to this day, being an ingredient in making the Twilight Phenomenon. On a similar theme, I can't help but notice a few similarities between "Hunted" (currently airing on BBC) and Alias - although Melissa George has switched from villain and taken the spot corresponding with Jennifer Garner's! More

Posted by rwoo on Tuesday November 13, 2012, 14:45

27 RE: Interesting Article
L: kisswithatear I did read both your articles on Twilight and 50 Shades and their central themes and how women and young girls are reacting to them. And you're right that I should give the benefit of the doubt. Women are assertive enough to acknowledge that this is all fiction, that these ideas are not fact and that at the end of the day it's all for the benefit of entertainment, I did rant quite a lot more to the end of my comment but I think it got cut off. I went on to say things like, if it benefits cinema then it's positive, and no one I knows actually pays attention to the themes of Twilight just enjoy the story. I actually ended on a conclusively positive note but oh well... I do agree with your statements. But I also wished to add my opinion on the shade of this impact. I personally find the statements these books make damaging but I look deeply into them. I'm not saying that other people don't, clearly they do as a local feminist organisation wanted to burn 50 ShaMore

Posted by Helen OHara on Tuesday November 13, 2012, 12:22

28 RE: Interesting Article
With that in mind I'd go back to the good/bad argument. One interesting inclusion might be Salt where the female lead was originally a male one. While it might be a key plank in a discussion of a female character being treated just as a male would, it's such a poor film it'd probably be dismissed as you head back to the drawing board.  More

Posted by elab49 on Tuesday November 13, 2012, 10:16

29 RE: Interesting Article
L: Helen OHara L: kisswithatear I liked it! But there is one thing I gotta contend with. If Twilight is going to create a new barrage of films aimed at female audiences can I just be worried that Twilight offers harmful and strange ideals for young women looking towards relationships. Same applies to 50 Shades. This is not a new argument and if you look online there are plenty of essays and arguments contending the central themes around these books which are that women will fall for the wrong guy who controls them, makes them feel like crap and then marry them and have really odd damaging sex with them. It would also help if the main female characters were anything but ciphers or Mary-Sues but they're not. As far as impressive female characters go, that can inspire just as Harry Potter did (or even Hermione) it would be the Katniss Everdeen character from Hunger Games who has drive, determination but also a fragile disposition. What makes her so unique is that sMore

Posted by kisswithatear on Tuesday November 13, 2012, 10:05

30 RE: Interesting Article
I think the problem generally is the issue of 'good films'. Games may not make good movies, although there might be the occasional 'enjoyable bad one'!, but many of the films mentioned in this aren't even 'enjoyable bad ones'. Harking back to your excellent piece on the baffling defences of Transformers 2, shouldn't the hope be for decent films not just female led ones? It didn't happen post-Mamma Mia, no matter the number of articles offering that up as a defence for that particular piece of tripe. And the male audience going to good female led films is old news - Aliens. I'd rather give a female relative a lump of coal for Xmas than most of that tosh. I think Twilight's dubious themes remain a valid topic for discussion although I agree, and hope, the interp that it won't have an influence is true ( the new phrase 'slut-shaming' is simply depressing as was the ridiculous behaviour of those who couldn't separate a character from a person).  I'd still prefer that a book youMore

Posted by elab49 on Tuesday November 13, 2012, 10:00

31 RE: Interesting Article
L: kisswithatear I liked it! But there is one thing I gotta contend with. If Twilight is going to create a new barrage of films aimed at female audiences can I just be worried that Twilight offers harmful and strange ideals for young women looking towards relationships. Same applies to 50 Shades. This is not a new argument and if you look online there are plenty of essays and arguments contending the central themes around these books which are that women will fall for the wrong guy who controls them, makes them feel like crap and then marry them and have really odd damaging sex with them. It would also help if the main female characters were anything but ciphers or Mary-Sues but they're not. As far as impressive female characters go, that can inspire just as Harry Potter did (or even Hermione) it would be the Katniss Everdeen character from Hunger Games who has drive, determination but also a fragile disposition. What makes her so unique is that she is indeed a flawed buMore

Posted by Helen OHara on Tuesday November 13, 2012, 08:55

32 RE: Speculation
Hi Btaylor25, If you actually read the article, you'll see that nowhere do I suggest that Twilight ITSELF is a strong representation of women onscreen or the model to go by (actually I think Kristen Stewart's Bella is a stronger character than she's given credit for but that's another discussion). The entire article discusses Twilight as a phenomenon, and the sad fact is that Ripley et al (and in fact if you're discussing strong women in cinema history, you'll need to go back to Davis, Crawford, Garbo and Hepburn to convince me, as those heroines you list are very much the exception and not the rule) did NOT prove a replicable model for box-office success. Twilight appears like it might, and has in any case woken studios up to a new audience in a way that Ripley and Clarice etc did not. Your reading of both Twilight and 50 Shades seems, well, like you haven't read either. In 50 Shades, for all its MANY flaws, s not sign the damn contractthe 50 Shades link in the article for More

Posted by Helen OHara on Tuesday November 13, 2012, 08:50

33 Speculation
I strongly disagree with this article. I think it is patronising to assume that pre Twilight, women had next to no pioneering strength within film/tv. Ripley? Buffy? The Bride? Sarah Connor? Clarice Starling?! The list goes on. Patronising and insulting to be honest. Twilight does not empower women. It works in the same way that 50 Shades of Grey does, despite what crowds of randy women claim. As sexually liberated as people think 50 Shades is, it is about a woman who willingly makes herself a contractual slave to a man. Twilight, is about a simpering teenager who jumps back and forth between pretty boy vampires and werewolves before waiting hand on foot on the decisions of the former before getting married at a young age, having unprotected sex (on her first time!) and having a baby before giving into the lure of the vampire cult. It sets a bad example ridiculously impressionable girls. In terms of the "wave" it apparently makes, NO, I'm sorry but that's just making uMore

Posted by btaylor25 on Monday November 12, 2012, 22:27

34 Interesting Article
I liked it! But there is one thing I gotta contend with. If Twilight is going to create a new barrage of films aimed at female audiences can I just be worried that Twilight offers harmful and strange ideals for young women looking towards relationships. Same applies to 50 Shades. This is not a new argument and if you look online there are plenty of essays and arguments contending the central themes around these books which are that women will fall for the wrong guy who controls them, makes them feel like crap and then marry them and have really odd damaging sex with them. It would also help if the main female characters were anything but ciphers or Mary-Sues but they're not. As far as impressive female characters go, that can inspire just as Harry Potter did (or even Hermione) it would be the Katniss Everdeen character from Hunger Games who has drive, determination but also a fragile disposition. What makes her so unique is that she is indeed a flawed but interesting character with More

Posted by kisswithatear on Monday November 12, 2012, 20:35

35 Never thought of it like that
I can't say that I've seen Twilight, or wanted to, but I don't hate it, and have know problem with people who are fans of the franchise. I've never thought of Twilight shaping cinema, but it does seem to be the first of a new type of film. And if The Hunger Games movies are a by product of the Twilight films, well then I say hurrah for Twilight. More

Posted by Brianfantana on Monday November 12, 2012, 20:32

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