In just two days, The Twilight Saga film franchise will come to an end. Oh sure we may see spin-offs, reboots (probably in a different medium) and/or quasi-sequels in some form or another, but the five-part Edward/Bella saga will come to its apparent climax. We can argue that few if any of the entries (including the unseen final chapter) were any good. We can argue their morality and/or philosophy and debate what (mixed) messages the core audience took from the series as a whole. But one cannot deny the cultural impact of the series. Of all the countless fantasy films to follow in the wake of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, it is the only one of its ilk to actually make it past a second entry beyond The Chronicles of Narnia. Heck, aside from the Aslan fables and the yet-unreleased second chapters in The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson, it is the only post-Potter/LOTR fantasy-lit series to even get a second chapter. But more than sheer staying power, The Twilight Saga was important in a number of ways, most of them actually net-positive. In the end, I firmly believe that the film industry is a better place because The Twilight Saga existed and flourished.
1. Low investment/high return: In short, The Twilight Saga is every studio's dream. In a time when studios routinely spend $175-$225 million chasing mega-franchise profits, Summit pulled off the ultimate coup, creating a top-tier blockbuster franchise for budgets usually associated with Oscar-bait prestige dramas or Adam Sandler comedies. The first film cost just $37 million but pulled in $191 million in the US (following a gob-smacking $69 million opening weekend) and $392 million worldwide (more than Star Trek and Batman Begins, natch). New Moon, at a cost of just $50 million, opened with a massive $142 million debut weekend (the third biggest debut of all time at that moment, more on that later), and ended up with $296 million domestic and $709 million worldwide. Eclipse earned another $300 million in the US and $698 million worldwide at a cost of $68 million while Breaking Dawn part I cost $110 million (not chump change, but inflated due to a big increase in salaries for the leads) and earned another $281 million in the US and $705 million worldwide. With one film (and likely $650-800 million worldwide total box office gross) still to go, the franchise has made $1 billion in the US and $2.5 billion worldwide on a total cost of $264 million, or about what Disney spent producing John Carter.
And its massive breakout success helped put an end to the idea that female-driven films cannot reach blockbuster numbers by virtue of their allegedly gender-exclusionary natures. Even if not a single male saw New Moon on its opening weekend, it still would have been the biggest opening weekend of 2009 with $110 million. With the success of Bridesmaids, The Twilight Saga, The Hunger Games, Brave, and Snow White and the Huntsman, we're seeing more than just a large number of female-centric films striking gold at the box office. What matters is that these films are no longer being written off as some kind of anomaly and/or a fluke. The idea that females go to the movies and in fact can drive major business is no longer a somewhat novel idea. It's a small step as far too many films are so male-centric that they are better off without any women in the cast. And we've already seen laughable attempts to capitalize on the franchise by telling a painfully similar story from the super-powered boy's point of view (think I Am Number Four). But The Twilight Saga is the only major franchise that stars a female, is told from a female's perspective, and actually bothers to have a plethora of female speaking parts (as of now, even The Hunger Games surrounds Katniss with mostly male characters, although I cannot speak for the sequels). I'd argue that much of the appeal of the series rests in merely being the lone current franchise where the female roles don't feel token in nature. In The Twilight Saga, the male characters serve at the whims and needs of the female lead's story. How often do we see that in big-budget cinema?
Girls want to be Bella! Girls are taking the stories' somewhat disconcerting romantic narratives as unimpeachable gospel! While there may be a dark undercurrent to the gobs of words written about this franchise, as well as the automatic rejection of its (certainly debatable) artistic merits, the fact still remains that the series has created an entire sub-genre of film criticism.
And coming from it as a defender of sorts (I think it gets unduly picked on and condemned because it appeals to females), I've had more fun writing about the Twilight films than I have with perhaps any major franchise since I started this blog. I've written both about the problems with the films themselves as well as the sometimes goofy critical reaction to the pictures ("Wow, Bella is a horrible role model! Oooh, isn't Drive romantic?!"). I've written about whether or not the film explicitly endorses its own narrative (Anna Kendrick seemingly exists purely to poke fun at the story) and whether or not the judgment the series faces is rooted in the fact that Bella embraces, rather than running away from, traditional gender roles. I've written about whether or not Bella is indeed a feminist creation it its purest form (IE - she gets to choose her own life path with the relative support of those around her). And of course pretty much every other critic, pundit, and blogger has put their two cents in sometime over the last four years. If we reluctantly admit that Prometheus was at least a success in that it got us talking about the film for weeks on end, if we acknowledge that The Dark Knight Rises inspired two weeks of non-stop chatter about the film's strengths and flaws (as well as alleged subtexts), then we must acknowledge that the Stephanie Meyer series has caused more people to talk about movies in some form or another than pretty much any other major film or franchise in the last five years.
The Twilight Saga stood apart as an anomaly, a powerful statement against what was conventional wisdom in terms of what kinds of movies could bring about blockbuster business. Be it a good series or a bad one, whether its philosophies on relationships were merely complicated or out-and-out immoral, the series stood alone against an onslaught on boy-friendly hero's journey epics. For the oncoming onslaught on female-driven franchises, which will hopefully provide a wide-variety of female heroes and villains, we can thank The Twilight Saga. For four years of endlessly engaging essays, reviews, blog posts, and think-pieces, we can thank The Twilight Saga. For providing a geek culture gateway drug for girls who otherwise wouldn't have been caught dead at a fantasy or comic-book convention (as opposed to girls who of course were already immersed in geek culture), we can thank The Twilight Saga. For existing as a proudly 2D franchise even as nearly every other would-be blockbuster series went the 3D route, we can thank The Twilight Saga. If for no other reason, the adventures of Bella, Edward, and Jacob were very much responsible for disproving the myth that girls and women can't power a franchise to towering heights that you needed boys to top the box office, that fantasy stories told from a female's point of view should be relegated to the small screen, and that girl-centric films shouldn't be taken seriously when discussing major tent pole film-making.
The Jazz Singer was not the best sound film of all-time. Journey to the Center of the Earth was not the best 3D film of the modern era. Dr. No is not the best James Bond film. The very first, or the first major example, of any kind of film is rarely the best. There will be female-centric franchises that are better than Twilight. They will have female characters who are better developed and perhaps better role models than Bella Swan. But few can deny that the swarm of female-led franchise pictures would have come to pass without the blockbuster success of Twilight. So no matter what you think of the films themselves (and I rather enjoy Catherine Hardwicke's wickedly funny original entry), no matter if you think they endorsed potentially harmful paternalistic philosophies (or if you believe that Anna Kendrick and/or Billy Burke's sympathetic father served to implicitly rebut Bella's choices), for four years The Twilight Saga mattered in a way wholly different than those who played in the same blockbuster sandbox. And, come what may, its overall legacy will likely be a positive one.