Is the “Twilight” Witch Hunt Over at Paramount?

Even two months after the release of “Twilight” — the mania-stirring movie about teen-vampire love– the mere mention of the film’s name on the Paramount lot induces cringing.   “It’s still very much an open wound,” said one Paramount source.   But in one sign that Paramount does not want to make the same mistake […]

Last Updated: February 12, 2009 @ 8:44 PM
Even two months after the release of “Twilight” — the mania-stirring movie about teen-vampire love– the mere mention of the film’s name on the Paramount lot induces cringing.
 
“It’s still very much an open wound,” said one Paramount source.
 
But in one sign that Paramount does not want to make the same mistake twice, Greg Mooradian, who in 2004 brought Meyer’s unpublished manuscript to the attention of David Gale, then head of Paramount’s MTV Films division, was hired last week as a senior vice-president of production under Adam Goodman, who runs production with Weston.
 
Paramount’s pain, of course, stems from the fact that the studio once had the rights to Stephanie Meyer’s best-selling novel (upon which the movie is based) securely in its vaults – only to turn them over, in a series of fumbles, to Summit Entertainment, the indie studio that released “Twilight” in November, and has been making out like bandits ever since.
 
“Twilight” cost just $37 million to produce. Yet it has grossed more than $300 million in worldwide ticket sales, making it one of the most profitable movies in recent Hollywood history. A sequel, naturally, is in the works.
 
As for marketing, that took care of itself. “Entertainment Weekly” devoted three covers to the movie. The Los Angeles Times created a “Twilight” count-down on its website, as did MTV.com. In the weeks leading up to the film’s release, it became a challenge not find yourself face to face with the brooding Robert Pattinson and his co-star Kristen Stewart, who play Edward and Bella, the film’s star-crossed lovers. 
 
It was during this build-up of “Twilight” buzz that Paramount turned itself upside down, and inside out, trying to figure out how it was possible they had allowed such a Midas-touched property to slip away.
 
According to one well-positioned executive, when the tracking for “Twilight” began going through the roof, Paramount instigated an internal “witch hunt” trying to pinpoint who was responsible for letting the project go. Fingers were cast at everyone from co-president of production Brad Weston to Scott Aversano, the former head of MTV Films, to Gail Berman, who stepped down as president of Paramount Pictures in January of 2007. (It was under Berman’s watch that Paramount was unable to make a co-producing deal with Fox on the movie.)
 
Executives at Paramount insist that any "Twilight"-induced anxiety is over; that the studio has moved on. After all, most of the executives who were involved with “Twilight” at the studio are no longer there. Furthermore, the “Twilight” script that was developed at Paramount (written by Mark Lord) is radically different from the script, by Melissa Rosenberg (“Step Up”), that made it to the screen. Rosenberg, in fact, never read Lord’s screenplay.
 
Paramount has not yet responded to requests from TheWrap for comment.
 
Granted, studios often pass on projects that go on to be hits elsewhere – “Forrest Gump,” “Home Alone,” and, most recently, “Slumdog Millionaire” all originated at studios that did not go on to release them. And to be fair, although “Twilight” had been generating a solid fan base ever since it was first published in 2005, and had become a presence on the New York Times’ best-seller list for young adult chapter books, according to Little, Brown publicist Elizabeth Eulberg, the “Twilight” phenomenon didn’t start until sometime between the second (“New Moon”) and third (“Eclipse”) books in the series were published, which was between August of 2006 and May of 2007. That time-frame coincides with when Paramount gave up on the project.
 
But still, the timing was awfully close. Paramount gave up the rights to “Twilight” in April of 2007, just one month before “Eclipse” sold 250,000 copies in its first week, knocking “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” off the top of best-seller lists.
 
At last count, Meyers’ series has sold more than 37 million copies worldwide. 
 
As for what exactly happened on “Twilight’s” tumultuous journey to the screen, according to interviews with a series of individuals with knowledge of the situation – none of whom wished to speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the subject — the story goes like this:
 
In 2004, Mooradian, then at Maverick Films, brought Meyer’s unpublished manuscript to the attention of David Gale, then head of Paramount’s MTV Films division. Gale, in turn, brought it to Paramount’s then co-president of production, Karen Rosenfelt, who lobbied for Paramount to acquire the rights to the property. Lord was hired to write a script, and the project became mired in development hell.
 
In January of 2006, Paramount put “Twilight” into turnaround. By now, Rosenfelt had left the studio (she was let go when incoming chairman Brad Grey cleaned house in 2005) and come aboard “Twilight” as a producer. Determined to find the project a home, Rosenfelt – who is the one steady throughline in the “Twilight” story — attempted to forge a co-production deal between Paramount and Fox 2000, where she had a producing deal. But Fox – known as being one of the more spend-thrifty studios – balked at Paramount’s terms. Rosenfelt also tried to generate interest at Fox Atomic, Fox’s teen-oriented label, but Atomic passed.
 
Finally, in October of 2006, Rosenfelt found an interested suitor in Erik Feig, president of Summit, who, over lunch at Il Grano in Santa Monica, asked her which project from Paramount she wished she could have brought with her.
 
Rosenfelt replied: “I think ‘Twilight’ could be huge.”
 
After the lunch, Feig obtained a copy of the book, read it, sensed that there was something there, and passed it on to colleagues at Summit — including co-chairman and CEO Rob Friedman, who, ironically, was vice chairman of Paramount when the early “Twilight” drama was transpiring – who were all enthusiastic.
 
When Paramount let the rights to “Twilight” expire in April of 2007, Summit pounced. Rosenberg was hired to write a script, and Catherine Hardewick ("The Lords of Dogtown") was brought on as a director. The rest is more or less history.
 
And whatever its feelings about "Twilight," soon enough Paramount will have better things to do than pine over would-be properties. With this summer’s release of the sequel to “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe,” Paramount will no longer be considered the studio that lost out.
 
As one Paramount source said, “We’re looking forward to the summer.”