posted November 20, 2008 08:39 AM
Studio Rises On Promise Of ‘Twilight’
The New York Times
LOS ANGELES — Until now, tiny Summit Entertainment has been largely ignored by the major studios and looked down on by A-list agents and managers. But because of a classic bit of Hollywood bungling, the fledgling movie company finds itself sitting atop one of the biggest pop-culture phenomena of recent years.
When “Twilight,” based on the first of Stephenie Meyer’s hugely popular teenage vampire novels, opens in theaters on Friday, audiences will be greeted not by the Warner Brothers shield or the 20th Century Fox drum roll but by Summit’s logo: an abstract squiggle evoking a mountain ridge.
Most pointedly, the potential blockbuster will not open with the more realistic mountain peak of Paramount Pictures, the studio that at one time controlled the rights to “Twilight” but let them slip away because someone at the studio decided in 2006 that the series was a dud. (A game of finger-pointing is now under way at Paramount over who deserves the blame.)
Ticket sales for the movie’s opening weekend could approach $60 million, box office analysts say, driven by Ms. Meyer’s devoted fans and Summit’s marketing pyrotechnics. That kind of money — especially for a film that cost just $37 million to produce — propels to the center of Hollywood a studio known for obscurities like “P2,” a horror movie set in a parking garage, and “Sex Drive,” about a loser who works in a doughnut shop.
“It’s the first time a little engine that could has come along in a while, and that’s getting the attention of people who never thought twice about Summit,” said Tara S. Kole, a partner at the entertainment law firm Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown, which represents clients like Steven Spielberg and Mary-Kate Olsen.
“Summit has obviously played this very smart in the marketing, but the smartest decision was noticing the property in the first place,” Ms. Kole added.
Summit Entertainment for years was an overseas seller of movies that also dabbled in production, putting money into films like “Michael Clayton” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” that were made by more experienced studios. But backed by $1 billion from a group of investors, Summit recast itself as a full-fledged studio in April 2006.
Led by Robert G. Friedman, formerly vice chairman of Paramount, and Patrick Wachsberger, a veteran international sales agent, the new Summit is set up to produce and distribute as many as 12 pictures a year.
When Paramount passed on making “Twilight,” Mr. Friedman heard about it. Erik Feig, Summit’s production chief, did some research and noticed an intense following online even though the book had not yet reached stratospheric status. Summit pounced, seeing a potential franchise.
The studio bought the movie rights to all four books in the series, which together have sold about 8.5 million copies in the United States and 17 million copies worldwide.
“We saw a great Romeo and Juliet story that has a very interesting modern sensibility,” Mr. Friedman said.
The challenge with “Twilight,” directed by Catherine Hardwicke and unabashedly cheesy in spots, is broadening the audience beyond teenage girls and their mothers. Box office tracking companies say interest among men is increasing, but still tepid. While seeking to reduce expectations — Summit insists it expects no more than $30 million in sales this weekend, despite what other forecasters say — the company has worked to woo men by advertising the action in the movie.
But that message is being drowned out by the mobs of teenage girls who have been turning up for a mall tour by the movie’s two stars, Robert Pattison, a unknown Briton who plays the tormented but tender vampire, and Kristen Stewart, cast as the sulky girlfriend. To get an idea of the size of the frenzy, an estimated 10,000 people attended a recent appearance in Dallas.
At Monday’s premiere in Los Angeles, about 3,000 fans lined the streets around the two theaters screening the film. More than a thousand people were denied entry to the packed premiere party.
The studio’s executives seem a bit discombobulated by all the fuss. Mr. Friedman and Mr. Wachsberger, interviewed jointly, appeared to have differing views on some matters, including what “Twilight” means for the profile of their company and its 135 employees, and they had trouble explaining the brand they are trying to create.
Mr. Friedman, for instance, dismissed the notion that blockbuster results for “Twilight” would open new doors for Summit in the industry, saying that every door is already open. “We’ve been supported and embraced by all the agents and management companies since the day we started,” he said.
But Mr. Wachsberger disagreed. “What we’ve proven with ‘Twilight’ is that we can market a movie as well as any other studio,” he said. “That makes it much easier for agencies to let their big stars come do a movie with us.”
When it comes to brand, the film industry almost universally agrees that people outside the Hollywood bubble do not make moviegoing decisions based on what studio makes the picture, with the notable exception of the Walt Disney Company. But Mr. Friedman said he believed “Twilight” would make the name Summit mean something with consumers. “We will probably create a brand with this,” he said.
What exactly is that brand? The two men were silent. Finally, Mr. Friedman said, “I would call it commercial.”