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Twihards bite, snarl and claw their way to records

Buggering up plans for a quiet weekend, New Moon rose, and rose, and rose around the world, smashing records as it went and leaving Twihards panting and breathless, if not sated, until the third instalment aarives in July next year. How did The Twilight Saga: New Moon do so well? we asked Robert Slaviero, the Australian CEO of Hoyts Distribution.

“We’ve lived with it for a long time. By the time we’d got to the opening we were just happy for it to open so we can get on with life. It was all encompassing.”

Robert Slaviero is talking about the first weekend of NM. On its opening weekend, it did $2,641,409 on 91 screens here, and $16,010,000 on 530 Australian screens. The midnight sessions were the biggest midnight sessions ever.

“The picture opened massively across the world”, he said. “At the moment, it looks like it’s only Australia, New Zealand and maybe the Philippines where it is the biggest opening ever. We are very proud of that.”

But the frenzy was not unexpected. The original Twilight made $US69m on its first weekend, on the way to a total of $US351m. Released to DVD in March, it has made $US170m in sales, on 9.3m units, which was number one in its market.

As Robert said, “Summit knew they were in at the start of a fabulous franchise, and they got that right.” Twilight cost $US37m to make, and Summit Entertainment pushed the budget on this one to $US75m. Even without the increasing price of the cast and original property, this meant that the production values were higher, with more action, and a more satisfying story.

This means all the word of mouth is about the second being better than the first. And the word of mouth was extraordinary.

The franchise started as a book, written by Stephenie Meyer, which was acquired by Paramount, went nowhere for three years, after which it was taken over by Summit Entertainment. Meanwhile, the book became completely addictive in the young adult space. In 2005, it allegedly debuted at number five on the New York Times best seller list, and kept spreading until it has now sold 17 million copies around the world, in 37 languages.

But the film has kicked that along as well, as has the release of the other three novels in the set, which Summit is busily turning into the rest of the franchise.

At the same time, social networking on the net was pumping up interest. Any tiny fragments about Robert Pattinson, Christian Serratos or Kristen Stewart was grist to the exploding cult. In Slaviero’s office, the front page stories cover a whole wall – publicity that you simply can’t buy, as he said happily.

With a subcultural frenzy, and wonderful returns on the first film, and rumours that this one is better, all the other commercial players lined up. Volvo was already in as a promotional partner, because the car was a product placement in Twilight.

This cross-promotional connection creates all that intense push like signs on fast food packets, offers, and appearances in advertisements, which have a powerful multiplier effect.

Robert cited a Volvo ad using shots from the film. “That is almost all it is – and some editor loved the wolves, which help to differentiate this film from the first one.”

As the film built, as the publicists released their rumours and stories and stills and clips onto the net, the traditional media wanted a piece of the action. Summit and Hoyts could deploy news, film clips and bits of interview to the voracious beast of television. And publicity driven details and interviews to the papers.

“The materials were terrific,” said Slavierot, “That’s always a good start. We had everything – large outdoor signage, buses… TV.. radio.. lots of stuff online.. in-cinema promotions.. popcorn cups.. a huge pre-release campaign. The tie-ins added hundreds of thousands on top of our advertising spend.”

The result, he said, was “a well of publicity and craziness.” The elements are conceptually familiar these days, but they had to be managed with skill, in great detail. As he said, “We did a bloody good job.”

It helped that it opened as part of the Thanksgiving Weekend in the US – the holiday which anchored the whole process – but it dropped into fairly empty space here, with no holiday. That meant the screens were available, and there were plenty of prints to fill them – which is sometimes an issue when films go out on holidays, apparently.

The original Twilight had massive repeat business, and many people have already seen New Moon … twice.

Hoyts Distribution calls itself an independent. “We’re pretty good with not overextending,” said Slaviero. “We are not going to be releasing thirty movies a year – the objective is one per month, but it can vary from ten to fourteen in a year. It is impossible to find twelve guaranteed hits in a year – it’s impossible. If you can get two or three decent results, and a couple do okay, and a couple you lose money on, you do well. You just have to be careful – we’ve got it down to a fine art on what we’re purchasing.”

They already have a release date for part three of the franchise. Eclipse opens on July 1st, 2010, and they are already doing the deals and building the early publicity, which had started during the shoot. They already know it will be worth a lot of money.

“Certainly the franchise has increased its audience base – its a broader audience than when we released Twilight. We’ve got teenage girls on board, and older females. And this run, we’ve captured teen boys to some extent.”

The Twilight audience will be captured again and again – several times in the cinema, in the books, on DVD and finally on television. What is more, as a teen film, it gains a whole new audience every five years or so.

The LA Times discusses the US box office in detail – including a lower production budget of $US50m. And goes on to point out that “Summit Entertainment will soon find itself having the biggest true independent film franchise in recent history”, and therefore financially stable, all on the back of the cheapest movie ever to take $US200m worldwide on the first weekend.

So specific is its demographic that the other high-grossing openers for the weekend were barely affected.

Dazzled by the possibilities of precisely defined pop-cult franchises, we consulted the Wikipedia list of the top one hundred books ever sold for the next big thing.

The Bible has been attempted several times, as has The Qur’ān. The Xinhua Dictionary is a bit short on story, and the Poems of Chairman Mao lack twists.

The best selling conventional novel is A Tale of Two Cities, followed – amazingly – by Scouting for Boys, although it would take a brave filmmaker to use that title in these politically correct times. Some bloke from Wellington already had a stab at The Lord of the Rings and the BBC remakes Agatha Christie stories every month, it seems.

Ah, well. For now, Bella et al have another couple of films in them before the next big franchise thing need appear.