From Titanic to Twilight

November 23, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

When James Cameron's Titanic opened on December 19, 1997, there were a lot of nervous executives at 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures, the two studios that had co-funded the hugely expensive, special effects-laden extravaganza. While most who had seen the film believed it had Oscar potential, its viability at the box office was in question. Would it be able to attract more than Cameron's "core" audience (teenage boys and young adult males) or would it fail to achieve the mainstream appeal necessary for the movie to turn a profit? The hope was that, because of the subject material, it might appeal to the population most quickly dwindling from multiplexes: older adults. What no one foresaw was the demographic that would turn Titanic into one of the biggest blockbusters of all time.

Titanic's first weekend gross was strong, but not awe-inspiring: $28.6M (about $44M in 2008 currency) - enough to barely edge out Pierce Brosnan's second outing as James Bond, Tomorrow Never Dies. After its debut weekend, however, Titanic did what almost no film had accomplished in decades: stayed at the top, week-after-week, grossing roughly the same amount every week. Between December 19, 1997 and February 16, 1998, it never made more than $36 million during any given weekend, nor did it make less than $23 million. The key to its consistency was repeat business, but not from the group that typically kept blockbusters afloat. The fuel that drove Titanic's engines were teenage girls. Suddenly, Hollywood had tapped a previously neglected demographic.

The lesson learned from Titanic was that, if the leads are appealing, the story is suitably romantic, and the male is photogenic and charismatic, girls will come - again and again and again. They'll make Trekkies and Star Wars fans look disinterested. Strangely, however, after Titanic, the studios went back to neglecting younger female audiences and returned the focus to their bread-and-butter: males, ages 11-25. Twilight becomes the first movie in a decade to go for the same jugular that Titanic severed.

When one considers the premise of Twilight, it's more than a little sleazy. A man pushing 100 seduces a 17-year old girl, then sneaks into her bedroom at night and watches her sleep. He's a stalker and a pervert. She responds to this behavior by falling in love with him. This reminds me of the Luke and Laura love story on General Hospital in the early 1980s in which romance sprang from a rape. It's more than a little unsettling. Then again, we're dealing with vampires. Or are we?

These "vampires" really shouldn't be called "vampires." Give them another name. They don't have fangs, they don't burst into flame when exposed to daylight, they aren't killed by a stake through the heart, they cast reflections in mirrors, and they aren’t bothered by crucifixes, garlic, or holy water. Hell, the tortured, heroic ones don't even drink human blood. What right do they have to be called "vampires?" Give them a new name. How about ViNO (Vampires in Name Only)?

After watching the movie, I borrowed my wife's copy of the book and sat down to read a little. I didn't get far. All the comparisons likening Twilight to Harry Potter are grossly unfair to J.K. Rowling and what she accomplished. Yes, both series are loved by the same general demographic (although HP crosses over to boys and older readers), but the quality is vastly different. Twilight is horribly written. I'm not referring to the story but to the nuts-and-bolts composition. It appears not only to have been written for 15-year old girls, but by a 15-year old girl (although Stephanie Meyer was about 30 when she wrote it). It's Eragon for girls. After about 50 pages of Twilight, I went back to P.D. James.

In terms of box office performance, Twilight was a slam-dunk. The success of the books and the starvation of the target demographic for a movie about which to go wild assured not only a big opening weekend but a healthy multiplex life. Unlike Titanic, however, this is a girls-only affair. It's hard to imagine boys going on their own, although this is an excellent date movie. As an associate of mine commented after viewing an advance screening in the midst of 300 screaming girls: "there wasn't a dry seat in the theater." That pretty much sums it up.

Of course, for those who love real vampire movies, there's one out there now, although to say it has been overshadowed by Twilight is an understatement. It's called Let the Right One In and, the more I think about it, the more I like it. It's also a love story about a human teenager (actually, he's 12) and a vampire, but it's smart, sensitive, and complex. It acknowledges the creepiness that accompanies the age gap and explores areas that might make viewers of Twilight uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I recommend that everyone who sees Twilight see Let the Right One In, if for no other reason than to have a point of comparison.