There's no way to put a pretty frame around this picture. After Catherine Hardwicke delivered an immensely lucrative franchise starter with "Twilight," a film that will put Summit Entertainment on the map, wiping away all the company's other losses and missteps, she was rewarded by being pushed aside, with Summit making it clear over the weekend that it's beginning work on a "Twilight" sequel without her. There is an enormously complicated back story to the events, but what really happened here was another example of the age-old collision between art and commerce.
Director of such indie-style films as "Thirteen" and "Lords of Dogtown," Hardwicke is an incredibly gifted filmmaker who gave "Twilight" an emotional intensity that helped the movie capture the heart-racing intoxication of Stephenie Meyer's novel, making the film a must-see for teenagers everywhere. (It's now grossed nearly $140 million in 18 days of release.) But Hardwicke is also a notoriously difficult, high-maintenance filmmaker who wears her emotions on her sleeve. This emotional intensity cuts both ways--it brought something special to the movie, but it made life a vertiginous roller-coaster for many people working on the film, from crew to executives.
On an indie film, prickly auteurs are a dime a dozen--they come with the territory. But in a shockingly short time, "Twilight" went from a quirky cult project, aimed at a teen subculture, to a massive, mainstream franchise. The indie movie suddenly became a mass-production product. The day after the movie opened, Summit announced that it wanted a sequel by late 2009. As Anne Thompson reports in today's Variety, Melissa Rosenberg, who wrote "Twilight," delivered her first draft of the sequel the weekend "Twilight" opened. Summit chief executive Rob Friedman, who deserves a lot of credit for supporting a project that had been put in turnaround by Paramount, the studio where he was a top executive for years, seems to have made a classic studio-style risk vs. reward decision: The sensitive artist who was the perfect filmmaker to launch the franchise was the wrong person to run the show once the project became a blockbuster franchise.
Hardwicke supporters say she had long ago soured on the prospect of being involved with the kind of franchise where a release window takes precedence over a finished script, saying she didn't want to be involved with a sequel, believing it would be more an assembly-line product than an artistic challenge. But after "Twilight" became a box-office phenomenon, her reps at CAA gently tried to persuade her to stay on board, especially if Summit would grant her creative control on the sequel. Like any filmmaker, Hardwicke felt a lot of love when "Twilight" swept across the pop-culture landscape, not to mention a pride of authorship in its success. But when she registered a lack of enthusiasm in the new script, it quickly became obvious that Summit would seek a more pragmatic filmmaker to helm the follow-up film.
What does this tell us about Hollywood? And was there a guy-girl conflict behind Hardwicke's departure? Keep reading: Rob Friedman insists that the "Twilight" sequel, "New Moon," was not being rushed into production. "We love the draft she turned in," he says. "Melissa has worked very hard on the material and was an integral part of what made the original film such a success. This is not a rush job. The movie only gets released when its finished. I'd like it to be next year, but we're not going to put out a bad movie to hit a release date."
On the other hand, Summit can't dawdle. Unlike with "Harry Potter," whose characters aged with each book, the characters in the "Twilight" series remain young forever, so if the studio is going to rely on its newly minted stars, Kristen Stewart and Rob Pattinson, to carry the entire series, it has to move full speed ahead. Summit has options on its lead actors, but since they are now in demand for other films, if Summit doesn't press ahead quickly, it could lose them for months on end to other productions.
Hardwicke's abrupt departure has also fueled rumors that she clashed with the all-male hierarchy at Summit. It's a charge often leveled at Hollywood's largely all-male executive ranks, which has a woeful track record of hiring female filmmakers on mainstream studio projects. Friedman insists there were no gender issues. "It's an insult to me personally as well as to our company. I'm the father of four daughters. When I was at Paramount, we did Kathryn Bigelow's 'K-19: The Widowmaker.' I was the person who marketed Mimi Leder's 'Deep Impact' [often cited as one of the most commercially successful films directed by a woman]. Here at Summit, one of the first films we've bought was 'The Hurt Locker,' which is also directed by Kathryn Bigelow. We would definitely make another film with Catherine Hardwicke, just not the sequel to 'Twilight.' "
Still, given the choice, most studios prefer to keep the director who started the franchise rolling, whether its Sam Raimi with "Spider-Man," Steven Soderbergh on "Ocean's Eleven," Brett Ratner with "Rush Hour" or Jay Roach on "Austin Powers." On "The Dark Knight," Warner Bros. has made it clear that the franchise will only proceed when Christopher Nolan, who brought the Batman franchise back to life, says it's ready to go. Summit's handling of Hardwicke's departure is more reminiscent of what Universal did with its "Bourne" series, which was also in the hands of a prickly indie filmmaker. Doug Liman launched the franchise with his dazzling "The Bourne Identity," but he went way over schedule and drove the studio crazy with his improvisational perfectionism. Even though the movie was a big hit and seemed to carry Liman's personal stamp, the studio ditched him, bringing in Paul Greengrass, a filmmaker with equally indie-minded credentials who could better deal with the deadlines and demands of a studio environment.
Summit's challenge will be to find a filmmaker to take over the "Twilight" series who has artistic credibility but who can handle the challenge of a ramped-up filming schedule (Summit's goal is to film both the second and third books in the series next year.) The most closely watched part of the decision will be the gender component. If Summit picks a guy, it will be open to criticism from the female filmmaking community, which is already furious over how few studio jobs go to women. But the female filmmaking gene pool is small. Most successful female directors are indie filmmakers, not studio pros, which would put Summit back in the same awkward situation of hiring a personal filmmaker who can't--or won't--embrace the by-the-book filmmaking model of most franchises.
Maybe I'm blinded by my fondness for Hardwicke's style of filmmaking, but I'm betting she won't have any trouble finding new projects to helm. If nothing else, the success of "Twilight" proves that a fiercely independent filmmaker can make a hugely successful commercial film. That's not just good news for Hardwicke, who now has some box-office clout to go with her art-house cred (even if she's probably getting deluged with bad vampire scripts as we speak). But it might even open a few doors for some other indie filmmakers eager to prove they can make good movies that make money too.