Fangs for the Memories, Rachelle

She whined. They bit back. Wednesday’s announcement by Summit Entertainment was brief: Rachelle Lefevre would be replaced by Bryce Howard in the third “Twilight” feature due to a scheduling conflict on Lefevre’s part. It caught almost everyone by surprise.  Media, bloggers and fans howled, floated conspiracy theories galore, generated online petitions and write-in campaigns to […]

Last Updated: July 30, 2009 @ 5:57 PM

She whined. They bit back.

Wednesday’s announcement by Summit Entertainment was brief: Rachelle Lefevre would be replaced by Bryce Howard in the third “Twilight” feature due to a scheduling conflict on Lefevre’s part.

It caught almost everyone by surprise.  Media, bloggers and fans howled, floated conspiracy theories galore, generated online petitions and write-in campaigns to restore Lefevre to the role and maximized the opportunity to make every vampire double entendre imaginable.

Then Lefevre herself took center stage.

A few hours after the news broke, she issued a mournful statement claiming to be “stunned” by Summit’s “surprise” decision, as if she’d only learned about the problem and its resolution that morning by logging on to People.com over breakfast. 

She seemed stumped as to why Summit wasn’t willing to rearrange principal photography, rehearsal and location schedules to accommodate another film commitment she’d made. She expressed love for the role, the cast and crew and the fans. She didn’t express love for the income and exposure the role provided, but we’ll guess that was implied.

The only thing that would’ve made Lefevre’s statement sweeter was if she’d done it on video while holding a puppy. 

You have to feel bad for the 30-year-old actress, whose credits were mainly a handful of short-lived series and telefilms before she hit the “Twilight” jackpot. It smells like she got bad counsel from her reps as to what was and wasn’t realistic, the importance of a hit franchise and her place in the “Twilight” universe.

But Lefevre’s strategy in issuing the statement was either extremely naïve or one of the more interesting games of Chicken that we’ve come across in years.

What Lefevre did, however, was lob a softball to Summit. And they hit back hard.

On Thursday, just as the news cycle surrounding Lefevre’s statement wound down, the studio unleashed a detailed, blunt statement, complete with timeline — and with just enough civility to avoid being outright bitchy — that explained what had allegedly transpired to force their decision.

They shot holes in Lefevre’s claims. They countered her emotion with facts. As many media observers noted, it was an unusual move in an industry that tends to over-think PR strategies, default to ultra-diplomatic and ultimately vague explanations and offer candor on a not-for-attribution basis.

And at the risk of alienating every “Twilight” fan, let me add: It was also a smart move on Summit’s part.

The studio’s statement spread like wildfire, appearing everywhere from "Access Hollywood" to obscure fansites. Interestingly, it doesn’t appear on the press releases page of Summit’s website, where the original casting change announcement can be found. 

 

In a way, the statement’s non-traditional tone is a double-edged sword:  It doesn’t quite fit the company’s other, more buttoned-up press releases, but it’s guaranteed huge viral reach and inclusion in its entirety.      

 

I can say from first-hand experience that replacing a character in an entertainment franchise is always sticky business. No matter whether the actor wants a release to pursue something more appealing, is miscast in the role or just an incorrigible asshole, he or she has a fan base that doesn’t want change.

 

It’s many times more difficult when the project has a rabid following decorating their walls in the key art, tucking in under a blanket decorated with the leading man’s image or getting lines of dialogue tattooed on their bellies.

Summit knew that making a casting change this far along in the franchise was going to be the fan equivalent of a 6.5 quake and no doubt evaluated its options carefully. (In hindsight, Lefevre’s absence at Comic-Con to support the upcoming “Twilight: New Moon” might’ve provided a clue to problems afoot.)

Some Twi-hards, as they call themselves, are acting as if Carrot Top got the role. And amateur pundits are spinning countless sinister reasons — the best being how Lefevre was dismissed so Summit could lure Howard’s father Ron to the studio’s stable of directors.

I’ve been resisting the urge to post a comment that it’s for a “Happy Days” remake.

But in a town where such candid backgrounding is usually done without fingerprints, why did Summit issue such a detailed on-the-record response? Perhaps they want to send a signal to the rest of the cast (their statement’s description of the “ensemble” was telling). Maybe a breach of contract lawsuit’s been threatened. Or as a new-ish studio in a tough economy, they want to show investors, partners and others that they can’t be manipulated into bad business decisions.

 

Their research might’ve shown that Lefevre was dispensable. Or maybe they just got fed up.

Time will tell because, like the series’ Cullen vampire family, this is a story that isn’t going to die so fast.

As of this writing, Lefevre and her people haven’t responded to Summit’s statement. If they were smart, they’d wind it down with a brief, gracious note; the actress would do a great job in this other film; and she’d very quietly campaign for her return in the inevitable “Twilight 4.0.”

For the rest of us, it’ll be interesting to watch how Summit handles Howard’s rollout among the fan base and address any other inevitable problems that might arise. Because as they’ve shown us, baby’s got bite.
 

Flackback will explore the art and artifice of entertainment PR.  The author has 25 years' corporate experience and has finessed everything from a celebrity's drunken surprise marriage to his best friend's 16-year-old daughter to a 20-minute advance warning that her company's president was being fired. And she sees little difference between these scenarios.  She's chosen candor over a byline.