[13 November 2008]
LOS ANGELES - It seems like a lot to ask, but the fate of the entire holiday movie season that begins this weekend may hinge on whether one film can live up to its pre-release hype: “Twilight.”
It’s a movie that many may not have heard of, from a studio that is probably more of an unknown quantity: Summit Entertainment. It has big shoes to fill as it’s standing in for an installment of the powerhouse “Harry Potter” franchise, which was postponed until next summer. And it’s a microcosm of what’s ahead for the industry this holiday season as few proven franchises are hitting screens this year.
Anyone with a teenager who’s been dragged to a midnight release of any of the books in the “Twilight” series by author Stephenie Meyer already knows the film is bound for a big opening weekend when it debuts Nov. 21.
Whether it can keep the industry on its near-record pace in domestic receipts could be another story, depending on how long the film’s appeal lasts. Now that “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” won’t hit theaters until July, there are mostly unknown quantities this holiday season.
“It looks like a quiet holiday season,” said Brandon Gray, president of BoxOfficeMojo.com. “I wish it were a bit more exciting but hopefully there’ll be some surprise successes.”
While there are two better-known films preceding “Twilight” - DreamWorks Animation’s “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” and the latest James Bond film from Sony Corp., “Quantum of Solace” - there are mostly unknown quantities until year’s end.
That means if “Twilight” can draw audiences into theaters well into December, it could bode well for some of the other movies expected to make their way on to the big screen between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
So far, the signs are good. Close to 100 show times on the day of “Twilight’s” debut are sold out, according to online ticket seller Fandango Inc. It already comprises 63 percent of the broker’s sales, already outdistancing both “Madagascar” and “Quantum.”
“I think ‘Twilight’ is going to be a big, big hit,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers.
If so, it could not only lift the fortunes of holiday box office in a foundering economy, it might elevate Summit into a formidable player among Hollywood studios.
Summit has been in the business for more than a decade, usually handling foreign sales of such films as “The Blair Witch Project,” “American Pie” and 2006 Academy Award nominee, “Babel.” It also helped produce “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “Insomnia” and “Memento.”
It also distributed films internationally, but earlier this year it dipped into the waters of the U.S. market by setting up a domestic distribution arm.
Domestic distribution is usually the domain of big studios like Sony, Time Warner Inc.‘s Warner Bros. unit, General Electric’s Universal Studios, Walt Disney Co. and Fox, a unit of News Corp. (News Corp. is the parent of MarketWatch, publisher of this report.)
But Summit set up its own network and in February released “Penelope,” a romantic comedy/fantasy. After that, it put out three others: “Never Back Down,” the animated feature “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Sex Drive.” None of the four have set the box office on fire; “Never Back Down” raked in the most money with $30.3 million in worldwide receipts.
Still, Summit Co-Chair and Chief Executive Rob Friedman says his aim is to make and distribute 12 films annually, an active year for most major studios.
“There’s room for all of us,” Friedman said.
Friedman is an industry veteran who started out in the Warner Bros. mailroom in 1970 and worked his way up to be its publicity chief. He then migrated over to Viacom Inc.‘s Paramount Pictures unit in 1997 where he became studio chief Sherry Lansing’s second-in-command. Friedman moved over to run Summit with its longtime president Patrick Wachsberger last year.
“Twilight” is, by far, Summit’s biggest release and could end up being the franchise upon which it builds its future. Meyer has written three other books for Little, Brown Book Group in the series - “New Moon,” “Eclipse” and “Breaking Dawn.”
“Breaking Dawn” was released in August in the same vein as the “Potter” books, with midnight unveilings at Borders, Barnes and Noble and other outlets. It sold 1.3 million copies its first day. Summit has secured deals for “New Moon” and “Eclipse,” and is closing in on a deal for “Breaking Dawn.”
“Twilight” first was published in 2005 and was a property under development by Paramount’s MTV unit while Friedman was there. It had yet to gain traction and was buried amid the other film projects the studio was juggling, Friedman recalls.
“It never hit my radar,” he said.
Lansing left Paramount during a studio shakeup in 2004 and Friedman departed the year after. Once he got to Summit, though, “Twilight” started to catch on with readers.
“At the time that we acquired the rights, the book had just come on the scene,” Friedman said. “We saw the opportunity in it for a film.”
Friedman describes the series as Romeo and Juliet in a vampire world. “Twilight’s” potential became apparent as he started to read the screenplay adaptation of the book, and he eventually came to realize it could be a franchise series for the studio.
Summit then tried to build up more interest in “Twilight’s” fan base and got Meyer more involved in the process. She’s created her own Web site.
“The more we worked with the fan base, the more enthusiastic they became and the more it grew,” Friedman said.
“Twilight” originally was scheduled to be released in December, but moved up to the prime spot of the weekend before Thanksgiving. That opportunity came when Warner Bros. moved “Potter” to July as a sparse amount of product was scheduled for release at that time.
Now, it’s scheduled to open in 3,000 theaters, with a handful of those debuting “Twilight” at midnight Nov. 20.
“They’re getting a lot of traction off the marketing of that movie,” said Media By Numbers’ Dergarabedian.
Even though advance sales of “Twilight” already exceed those of “Quantum,” some industry watchers believe the latest Bond film could be one of the biggest releases of the season.
The previous Bond film, 2006’s “Casino Royale,” generated more interest after it left theaters. The $150 million production did only $167 million in domestic receipts, but its overall worldwide take was $587.6 million.
It was the first to feature actor Daniel Craig as Bond. Craig set new boundaries for the character, being not only the first Bond with blond hair, but also the first British secret agent to actually sweat and bleed during the course of the movie.
“Quantum” already has been released overseas, and could outperform “Casino” based solely on revived interest in the series. That’s due largely to Craig’s expanded portrayal of Bond.
“Anticipation should be very high for ‘Quantum of Solace’,” said BoxOfficeMojo’s Gray.
While December looks dicey, there are some possibilities for box-office gold, though it may not shine as brightly as past holiday releases as the “Lord of the Rings” film series of years past, Gray said.
There are such releases as Disney’s animated feature “Bolt” and two Fox dramas - the period piece “Australia” and a remake of the 1951 science-fiction thriller “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” None come with guarantees, however.
A fair number of A-list male stars are releasing films during the month, including Adam Sandler in Disney’s “Bedtime Stories,” Tom Cruise in United Artists’ “Valkyrie,” Will Smith in “Seven Pounds” and Brad Pitt in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
Sandler usually can deliver at least $100 million in domestic receipts with his comedies, although his dramas often don’t fare as well. He scored well with the summer release of “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” and last year’s “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry,” but the drama “Reign Over Me” brought in only a fraction of the box office.
Cruise, meanwhile, has yet to score a hit with him in a starring role since he appeared in the 2006 release, “Mission: Impossible III,” which made $395 million worldwide. The film was released just as he had a high-profile split with longtime partner Paramount Pictures, and Cruise was under the gun over a series of public relations gaffes.
Not even Cruise’s star power could keep last year’s drama, “Lions for Lambs,” from tanking. Cruise, however, did have a supporting role in this summer’s moderate hit “Tropic Thunder.”
“Valkyrie” is the story of the real-life plot by Nazi officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The film also features notable actors Kenneth Branagh and Tom Wilkinson.
Meanwhile, Will Smith is one of the more bankable movie stars in Hollywood. His last film, “Hancock,” scored $624 million worldwide and last year’s holiday release, “I Am Legend,” made $584 million globally.
Sony’s “Seven Pounds” is billed as an emotional drama that reunites Smith with his director in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Gabriele Muccino.
And Pitt is evoking whispers of awards glory for his performance in Paramount’s “Benjamin Button.” It’s the story of a man born with the appearance of a 70-year-old, and starts to age backwards.
Other potential films with Oscar possibilities include “Frost/Nixon,” which chronicles the post-Watergate interviews of disgraced President Richard Nixon by British talk-show host David Frost. Frank Langella plays Nixon while Michael Sheen is cast as Frost.
There’s also “Milk,” a biography of Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone by fellow supervisor Dan White in 1978. Sean Penn is in the title role.
And “Quantum’s” Craig reappears in “Defiance,” the story of three Jewish brothers who escape Nazi-occupied Poland to join the Russian resistance during World War II. They create a safe haven for others threatened by the Third Reich.