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The Most Underappreciated Movie Franchise of the Last 10 Years Is … ‘Twilight’?

The sparkly, kitschy vampire movies debuted 10 years ago, giving us two bona fide movie stars, a multimillion-dollar franchise, and a blueprint for how to market female-driven films to female audiences. Will we ever take the series seriously?

Edward Cullen and Bella Swan looking into each other’s eyes Leonardo Santamaria

When Edward Cullen, the beautiful vampire with impossibly large hair, first stepped into the sun, it was a climactic moment for obvious reasons: the undead, daylight, a centuries-old opposition between the two. But the moment, as depicted in Catherine Hardwicke’s 2008 film Twilight, put a new twist on the drama. The original script described the scene thusly: “EDWARD’S SKIN literally sparkles as if embedded with thousands of tiny diamonds. He is magnificent, shimmering, like a statue carved from glittering crystal.”

Even at the time, the unapologetically gushy Twilight was easy to mock, and many people did. The book, which became a full-fledged phenomenon with the release of Hardwicke’s 2008 adaptation, read a bit like a teen’s diary—almost as if the publisher had stolen it from under author Stephenie Meyer’s bed rather than paid her for the privilege. But to truly love making fun of something requires, on some level, a love of the thing itself. The silliness was part of Twilight’s charm. Ten years later, with so many dour copycat franchises in its wake, it’s easier to appreciate why Twilight became such an outrageous success.

Before Twilight, there was no Hunger Games, no Divergent, no Maze Runner, and of course, no Vampire Diaries. The Twilight series sparked an explosion in young adult (YA) fiction, spawned a “paranormal romance” section at Barnes and Noble, launched two bona fide movie stars in Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, reconfigured the population of Forks, Washington, contributed to Hollywood’s franchise mania, and forever altered the expectations of what a female-driven franchise could deliver. There was phenomenon and backlash, boom and bust, shattered norms, and larger dreams left unfulfilled.

But the sense that maybe it wasn’t meant to be read is both the reason Twilight is so irresistible as a punch line and its saving grace. In the 10 years since the initial film’s release, when so many franchises have begun to feel algorithmic, more formula than fantasy, it’s quaint to remember one that actually feels slightly embarrassing. Being a little embarrassing is maybe the most human quality of all.

For all of its later influence, the idea that Twilight would become a franchise itself was by no means obvious when “teeny, tiny little studio” — in the words of its head of marketing at the time, Nancy Kirkpatrick — Summit Entertainment green-lit a film adaptation and hired Hardwicke to direct. Hardwicke, a production designer who had worked with the likes of Cameron Crowe (Vanilla Sky) and David O. Russell (Three Kings), had made her directing debut in 2003 with Thirteen; she’d cowritten the film with her ex-boyfriend’s teenage daughter, Nikki Reed (who went on to play Rosalie in the Twilight series). Thirteen became an indie darling, and Summit, which had been handling international sales, gave Hardwicke five scripts to read to see whether she might want to direct one.

“I really hated all the scripts, honestly. I threw them all in the trash,” Hardwicke tells The Ringer. But something about “the teenage vampire one” stuck with her, and, suspecting it was based on a book, she tracked down the source material — a wildly popular YA novel written by a first-time author and mother of three. It turned out that the screen adaptation, presumably written in an effort to appeal to the coveted 18-to-35-year-old male demographic, was the problem. “I went into the meeting and said, ‘I need to throw this script away,’” Hardwicke says. “Because it had Bella as a track star, it had FBI agents chasing the vampires on Jet Skis and all this crazy stuff. I would assume that the idea was, like, let’s blow it up and make it more appealing to guys.”

So instead Hardwicke pushed for an adaptation that was “truer to the book” — truer to the idea that it was more about the intensity of young love than about warring vampires, and truer to its female gaze. Summit hired Melissa Rosenberg, who had written for The O.C. and Party of Five, and who would go on to write for Dexter and create Jessica Jones for Marvel, to adapt a new screenplay. “The cool thing about the book is that you really feel like you’re madly in love for the first time,” Hardwicke says. “And even I heard recently that Quentin Tarantino says, on Eli Roth’s History of Horror series, that Twilight made him feel like he was a 13-year-old girl.”

The question in 2008 was, Did moviegoers want to feel like 13-year-old girls? And how many 13-year-old girls would actually buy tickets? “At the time, nobody knew it was going to be successful,” Hardwicke says. “Because Paramount, Fox, no studio wanted to make the movie. … I mean, I was given the example of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, which was a very popular book for women, girls, and then it was a very popular movie, but it maxed out at like $39 million. So that was considered what might be the most any movie by a girl, for girls, could make, starring a girl.”

There wasn’t much of a road map for success of the kind Twilight would experience, so Kirkpatrick had to invent it. “It’s funny, because I looked back at the PowerPoint that we presented to our top management,” Kirkpatrick says. “On the first page, one of the goals was, ‘Create a phenomenon.’ I felt, well, that’s ballsy considering this was not a big book at that point, and we were this teeny, tiny little studio, but, hey, we went for it.”

They couldn’t just do what other franchises had, because they weren’t courting the usual young male demographic that marketers traditionally thought drove ticket sales. “Nancy laid out [the difficulties of marketing Twilight]. She said, ‘Look, Catherine. You have cast almost unknown actors. There’s no stars on the Disney Channel, there are no adult stars that anyone’s ever heard of. You’re not going to get to be on any talk shows, guest appearances, no magazine covers … nothing. OK?”

In the absence of traditional stars and comparable titles, Kirkpatrick had to rely on the things that usually scare marketers — common sense and intuition. “It was not a giant best seller when we green-lit the movie,” Kirkpatrick says. “At that point, the book hadn’t sold a million books.” But what Kirkpatrick did have was obsessive fans, so she tried to stimulate the grass-roots popularity that already existed wherever possible, offering selective access to the most prolific Twihards and Twilight bloggers and letting the phenomenon build.

“The fans, as we gathered steam, they made it a news event,” Kirkpatrick says. “We would put actors in malls, and they’d have to close down the malls because there’d be so many people there. There’d be every news crew in the region, and every national crew in the country would be at mall events just because of the volume of fans.”

“[Nancy] had laid out this whole synergy plan,” Hardwicke says. “She exceeded every one of her milestones, like tenfold, twentyfold. Even the Thursday night before the opening, they told me, ‘We have prayed that we hope that it makes $30 million. Something in the 30s, we’ll be so happy.’

”Well, it made $69 million opening weekend.”

It’s impossible to remember Twilight without remembering the fans. Even more so than the books themselves — which told the increasingly absurd tale of a World War I–era vampire who falls in love with a Washington state high school girl even though he desperately wants to eat her — it seemed like every news cycle brought a new totem of Twilight superfan obsessiveness.

Remember them? They were called “Twihards,” and they were incredible. They got tattoos of Peter Facinelli’s (a.k.a. Dr. Carlisle Cullen, a.k.a. Aman-DUH) signature; held Twilight proms; visited Forks, Washington, like it was Graceland; and even made felt replicas of Bella’s womb. “Twilight unleashed some creativity people didn’t realize they had,” Hardwicke says. “Because they started doing all kinds of crazy things, everything from writing fan fiction that became Fifty Shades of Grey, another powerful franchise, to just making cool little weird, creative homemade jewelry and strange quilt T-shirts for Twilight. They found community and friendship all over the world.”

While that fan community undoubtedly exploded because of the movie, it existed almost from the beginning. It was their sheer enthusiasm that allowed the people in charge of the movie to dream that a previously somewhat niche phenomenon could go mainstream. “I went to meet Stephenie right after we green-lit the movie at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena,” Kirkpatrick says. “She was doing a signing, at ten o’clock on a Saturday morning. I drove up, and there was a line around the block — for what I’d thought was an unknown book and an unknown author. It was like, ‘Oh, my God, there’s something going on here.’”

“I sat in there, and I listened to the Q&A and watched and all of that, and the fans were so knowledgeable, and so into it, and so intense. I thought, ‘This has a shot. This is the way in,’” Kirkpatrick recalls.

Kirkpatrick’s strategy had implications for publishing as much as it did for the movie industry. “Although it had technically been around for decades, YA really was an emerging genre in the early 2000s,” says Rachel Carter, author of So Close to You for HarperTeen, in an email. “We were beginning to see it grow and evolve, particularly around speculative fiction (with authors like Holly Black). But Twilight helped change the game through its sheer popularity. Suddenly YA wasn’t an emerging fringe genre, it was one of the biggest genres in publishing.”

Self-described Twihard Lissy Andros tore through the books within a few days around Christmas 2008, just a month after the first Twilight movie was released. “I was divorced. My mom had just separated from my dad, and so she had moved in with me. I didn’t have a lot of things I was looking forward to,” says Andros. “Life was just pretty mundane. My friend had read [Twilight] and basically forced me to at the threat of us not being friends anymore.” Andros now works as the director of the chamber of commerce in Forks, Washington, where the Twilight series is set.

Meyer, who grew up in Arizona and went to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, had never been to Washington; she chose Forks after a Google search of the rainiest regions in the U.S. (Even sparkling vampires can’t stay in the sun too long.) These days, Andros, who moved from Texas, helps plan Forks events like Forever Twilight Day, directs visitors to Twilight points of interest, and maintains the Forever Twilight collection, a gallery installation featuring costumes and props from the film. “When I read the Twilight saga, something inside me woke up and just inspired me to make this move. I know a lot of people say this, but because it was written in first person, everyone kind of pictures themselves in the story, and I really did.”

Meanwhile, as Andros was tearing through Twilight in 2008, across the Atlantic, another future Twihard was finding inspiration of her own. E.L. James binged the books in England, inspiring her to write Twilight fan fiction, initially under the name “Snowqueens Icedragon.” This eventually evolved into the Fifty Shades of Grey series. Where Twilight was often purported to be an abstinence parable (though Meyer always denied it), James’s Fifty Shades of Grey filled an obvious niche by adding the sex back in, and in the process introduced a generation of women (mostly) to light bondage. At one point in 2012, Fifty Shades accounted for three of the top four slots on USA Today’s best-seller list. The film trilogy, which concluded earlier this year, has made $380 million.

Twilight opened in November 2008, but the marketing reached a fever pitch at Comic-Con that July, with the cast’s sensational appearance at Hall H in San Diego. Comic-Con was, at the time, arguably a little boy’s clubby. Women were never specifically excluded, but a female-driven franchise, received by younger female fans screaming like they were at a Beatles concert, was something new.

“Our Hall H presentation was on Saturday morning, and I drove down there Friday night from L.A.,” Kirkpatrick says. “I checked into my hotel, which is across the street from the convention center, and there was already a line for something. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing. Good for them.’ This guy that worked for me, just as I was checking in, said, ‘You need to get over here right now.’ I said, ‘Oh, my God, what’s the matter?’ He said, ‘These are Twilight fans,’ and it was. We had a thousand people lined up at four in the afternoon the night before.”

Those initial Comic-Con attendees hadn’t even seen the movie yet, and the audience would only expand once people had. It’s hard to think of Twilight now without thinking of its wild sequels: the Bella-Edward honeymoon in Brazil, the broken bed, an unconscious bride (presumably thanks to Edward’s superpowered vampire thrusts), and of course, the telepathic half-vampire baby named, perhaps most incredibly, Renesmee (which I believe is a portmanteau of “Renee” and “It’s Me, Renee”). Did I mention the fully grown werewolf who fell in love with the telepathic half-vampire baby?

But that first movie was a relatively grounded affair — aside from the infamous “vampire baseball” scene, in which giant-haired vampires wearing old-timey baseball uniforms flew through the forest and smacked balls over mountains during a thunderstorm — and this groundedness wasn’t so surprising with a director from the indie world like Hardwicke. The 2008 Twilight established a baseline reality and in many ways invented the story’s protagonist, who was something of a cipher in the books. “I saw the first Twilight movie in the theater and I loved it. No shame, straight-up loved it,” Carter says. “From the moody shots to the constantly constipated look on everyone’s faces, I was sold. I feel like it was a story line that was made to be a movie — perhaps slightly more than it was made to be a book.”

The film was received as planned. “The core audience was always female. We tried to include as much action adventure as we could and the vampire-ness of it as we could so that [boys] would feel OK to come to the movie — or if they were coming as a group with a bunch of girls, they’d feel OK and they wouldn’t immediately reject it, but the core audience was always female,” Kirkpatrick says. “The first audience we looked at was young female and then expanding to older female and then younger male.”

By the next year’s Comic-Con, the backlash was already in full swing. Fans carried “Twilight ruined Comic-Con” signs. Actor Alan Tudyk wore a “Twilight is gay” T-shirt. The “disco sucks”–style hate fest, complete with latent discrimination, was on. All of which had L.A. Weekly asking, “Is there a gender war brewing?”

Some of the reaction was expected — the kind of ridicule vampires who shimmer are bound to generate — but there was also an uglier, more retrograde strain, which objected as much to Twilight’s female-centric appeal as its diamonds. The Twilight backlash was, perhaps, an early foreshadowing of things to come: of Gamergate, of the “boycott Star Wars” movement, of many so-called controversies people outside insular fan communities rightly find too exhausting to worry about. The flare-ups always seems to happen when women make any significant contributions to traditionally male spaces. It can be difficult to separate objections to the merits of art from objections on the grounds of including women, and often the former is invoked to deliberately enshroud the latter. With Twilight, that distinction was especially complicated.

In the face of an organized backlash, unlike those surrounding, say, Wonder Woman or Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, Twilight never fit snugly into a girl-power narrative. Buying a ticket to Twilight was never positioned as a vote against the patriarchy, or yet another opportunity to prove that female-driven films can perform at the box office. While much of the Twilight criticism was surely tinged with misogyny, the franchise itself wasn’t as easy to champion. For many, the source material just wasn’t that progressive. It was hard not to read Edward overcoming his intense desire to eat his girlfriend through sheer willpower as an abstinence metaphor. Meyer is Mormon, and parts of the book seemed to mirror Mormon themes. Meanwhile, what seemed to some people like true love (Edward watching Bella sleep, for example) seemed creepy and stalkerish to others.

Which seemed silly to the superfans. As Lissy Andros puts it: “It’s a fictional story. He’s a vampire. I think he really behaves well for a vampire. He is not a normal guy. You know? And so whatever underlying symbolism they think they see in it, I think that they might be digging too deep. It’s a story about a vampire and a high school girl.” Yet other self-described fans aren’t as quick to explain away Twilight’s shortcomings. “It was about two men fighting for Bella who each knew better than her, and who each used controlling behavior to convince her of that,” Rachel Carter says. “Take Edward removing the engine from her car so that she couldn’t leave the house when he didn’t want her to. Or Jacob forcibly kissing her more than once while she said no, until she finally realized she loved him all along. The message this sends to teenage girls is that love is about control. The message this sends to teenage boys is that even when she says no, she actually means yes. These themes are obviously highly, highly problematic.”

As a more sexually explicit version of Twilight, Fifty Shades may shed some light on the disconnect between Twilight lovers and Twilight haters. If explicit consent is the foundation of an ideal BDSM relationship, the dom-sub relationship isn’t so much a fantasy of being “controlled”; it’s the fantasy of someone knowing what you want before you can verbalize it, of a partner knowing what you want before you do, and allowing them to explore it. Some kernel of that idea is clearly present in Twilight, in embryonic form, or else Fifty Shades wouldn’t exist. But the fact that Bella’s consent is always unspoken — unknown to its author, if not nonexistent — makes Twilight a complicated relationship model, especially for its young readers. As Tanya Erzen of Bitch Media wrote in her elegy for the Twilight series, “Indeed, the Twilight series is a malleable text, encapsulating and inverting an already confusing set of gendered narratives. Boys are devastatingly romantic, overbearing, and creepy stalkers. Girls are heroic damsels in distress. Women want chivalry and dangerous sex. The stories’ postfeminist fantasy is that personal choice alone determines the course of our lives, superseding sex, class, race, and economics. Then it upends that idea by telling us that love is destined and inevitable.”

Twilight’s defenders, meanwhile, generally fall back on the idea of Bella as “powerful.” “[The feminist critique of Twilight] always made me insane, because they had this whole sort of narrative that Bella was weak, but they didn’t follow the story to the end,” Kirkpatrick says. “Bella saved everybody in the end! She became queen of the vampires. She was the one willing to die for her child. She was the strongest one of all throughout the story. It was like they sort of were buying into what they were hearing instead of the actual story.”

When asked how Twilight might be different in 2018, Hardwicke also focused her answer on Bella. “I think, you know, on another level, we might’ve worked harder to make Bella a little bit less passive. More active. Because we did know the whole arc of the series. By the last books she becomes very powerful. But in [Twilight] she hasn’t really found her power yet.”

The defenders and critics are talking past each other, to some extent. It’s entirely possible to be powerful and have an unhealthy relationship. In any case, a more progressive Twilight would’ve made for a fascinating culture war, fought over vampires in flowing scarves and vampire baseball. Instead, the franchise weathered criticism on two fronts. The story was already such a contradiction that fighting over it became almost redundant.

“YA has been getting more respect in recent years, and I think it’s just starting to be recognized as a genre that’s on the cutting edge of progressive issues,” Carter says. “But I think it’s still often easy to dismiss YA, especially when it’s centered on romance. Oh, look at the sparkly vampires! But it does matter what themes we’re presenting to audiences, particularly when those audiences are young and impressionable readers.”

It’s possible that people got caught up in what Twilight was about — a weird, kind of goofy, arguably old-fashioned love story — and missed what it was: a female-driven franchise paving the way for all sorts of female-driven franchises and fandoms. For all its success, Twilight’s legacy is still somewhat overlooked. Hardwicke herself has admitted frustration in the past, having imagined the smash success of Twilight would do more for her career than it actually did. “I thought I’d be offered many fun things,” Hardwicke told The Independent in 2015. “I thought there would be maybe an office or the chance to develop new projects. Then when I got to Summit there were all these balloons and congratulation signs everywhere and I couldn’t help thinking, wow I’ve heard sometimes they give people cars when a movie has gone well. Guess what I got? A mini cupcake.”

She ended up directing one more major studio release before going back to independent films, 2011’s Red Riding Hood, starring Amanda Seyfried. “I ended up taking a pay cut,” Hardwicke told Variety in 2013. “I guess I thought after the success of Twilight, I might have had a bigger opportunity instead of a smaller one. I’m a five-four female from Texas with no family ties to this business. Of course there are double standards. No one can say it’s a level playing field.”

Despite some disappointment about how it all played out, she’s still proud of Twilight and its place in history. “All the people that are trying to get movies made based on books and starring women, they can all use this as ammo. Like, ‘Hey, man, it worked with Twilight.’ And that, of course, led to Hunger Games, Divergent, you know … Atomic Blonde, tons of others successes. So that’s really cool,” Hardwicke told The Ringer.

“Now, have we come as far as we wish? Because all those movies I just quoted were directed by men. All the other Twilights were directed by men. So a little bit was learned, a little progress was made. But maybe not enough.”

Maybe Twilight was too outsidery for Hollywood to fully champion it. Maybe it was too weird. Maybe it was just a couple years ahead of its time. Or maybe, like many pioneers, Hardwicke’s contribution will come to be acknowledged with time.

Vince Mancini is a writer and podcaster, the senior film and culture writer for Uproxx, and coproducer of the 2013 Gathering of the Juggalos documentary Whoop Dreams.

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