Besides providing a sizable income for Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, the Twilight series was a boon to my home state, Louisiana. Thanks to K-Pats, several movies were filmed around my hometown, which is probably why I’m a bit softer towards the series. Maybe this explains why I’m not as quick to roll my eyes at the mention of vampires or Kristen Stewart’s bland interviews. Whether you like the films or the books, Twilight was an important moment in cinema. It was one of the first films in a magical movement towards what is becoming more apparent: Women are ruling the world and building franchises all their own.
In 2013, The Hunger Games will challenge newcomer Beautiful Creatures for the void Twilight has left. Naturally, some do not see this as progress since these films are grounded in the teenage experience and do not appropriately represent female moviegoers en masse. Soccer moms will see these films, as proven with the sale of the books, but Twilight changed things. Could the success of Fifty Shades of Grey have happened without publishers noticing that women were already engaging with mythic themes and exploring new ways of thinking? Or that there is significant interest not only in strong heroines, but heroines in a complex and engaging narrative? As much as I loved the Harry Potter franchise, one of the things I appreciated most was that Hermione and Prof. McGonagall were just as strong as their male counterparts. Hermione’s scholasticism, fighting abilities, and her efforts to champion the cause of the “homeless” house elves made her far more compelling than “the boy who lived.” Cho Chang and the Patil sisters are there until the end, defeating evil and every bit as capable as their fellow male students. This resonated with a generation.
A generation is responding to this and celebrating it in their entertainment mediums because Twilight was a spring-board off what was previously a predominantly male genre – fantasy. Think about it. The largest ensemble franchises in movies were all male-driven. Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, X-men and the Avengers, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones – all by men, for men. Did anyone else notice that when the Avengers cast made an appearance at the Oscars, all of the women were missing from the stage? I felt it was an insult to the progress of the last four years. Before, “chick flicks” and romantic comedies rarely got a sequel (Bridget Jones’ Diary, anyone? Terms of Endearment?). Yet, if Twilight presented women as unable to be accompanied (first Edward, then Jacob, then the baby carriage), The Hunger Games is the next step in the evolution taking place – women can be strong on their own. I think Jennifer Lawrence’s win at the Academy Awards was part, parcel, and package a nod to strong women in film. I’ll admit, I was not a Jennifer Lawrence fan until I saw her make a room full of men step back in Silver Linings Playbook – including Robert De Niro. And now we have begun to see other films driven by women for women take center stage. While The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey are gearing up for continuing these strides, as of the writing of this article, the biggest spoilers of continuing summer franchises are that Uhura will have a stronger role in Star Trek: Into Darkness and that Wonder Woman will make a cameo in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel before her own entry in DC Comics crossover event. Men and women are looking forward to seeing more women take the lead. This new approach to women in film, namely acknowledging them at all, marks a shift towards how blockbusters are made. The strong female leads of the coming years will not be supplementary to men, nor stand alone films, but the anchors of blockbuster franchises.
It is both a truism and cliché that franchise films have been targeted towards teenage boys… and men who live in their parents’ basement. Star Wars is credited as the first with the broad merchandising efforts of George Lucas and has been the premiere exemplar ever since. Batman, Transformers, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, even single-runs like E.T. and The Goonies. But that demographic is not as reliable as it once was, at least not when it comes to film. Teen boys, my brother among them, are spending their money on videogames, tablets, and staying home. Not a new thing, but certainly more costly than it was when I was a teenager. In the meantime, teen girls and their mothers have filled the absence and created the new market for entertainment.
So far, their fantasies are more grounded and realistic – or at least need less special effects. Male fantasies, while lucrative, also come with large pricetags, the exception perhaps being The Hangover. These expenses stem from the most likely places, of course – devoting their attention and paychecks to videogames has caused a disconnect from the familiar as gaming worlds become more exotic, historically accurate and detailed when they do not take place on alien worlds. Why pay for a disposable and familiar world in the theater when you can spend time blowing up lifeforms on Forerunner, completing errands in Liberty City, or sailing a ship with George Washington during the American Revolution for hours on end? These adventures are a far cry from rural Forks, Washington and the pricetag of the blockbuster comes from leaving reality. This is not a criticism, of course. I spent my summer helping my little brother swing with Spiderman on his PS3, and gladly took him to see the latest Dark Knight film. The point isn’t that fantasies are bad, it is that Hollywood seems to be testing the water before they venture into Themyscira, the districts of Panem, and Downworld. And it’s looking like a good real estate venture because women, who are better educated and more employable at present, are guaranteed in the audience.
Make fun of Twi-hards if you want to, but studios seem quite smitten with them in 2013 and are scrabbling to assemble an impressive marquee for the coming years. Those hardcore fans, your sisters and girlfriends and mothers, are no more crazy than the Trekkers, Jedis, Michael Bay-ites, and Sheldon Coopers among us. If anything, they are proving a stable market with predictable source materials – the bestsellers list at the local bookstore. As women fill more seats in high education, they’re earning more and spending their time reading more leisure material. Studios love a sure bet with ready source material and established audiences.