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Who Can Explain the Billion-Dollar 'Twilight' Economy? This Guy

Q&A: Popstar! Founder-Editor in Chief Matthew Rettenmund

By Published on . 1

Hollywood wasn't exactly blindsided by the weekend box-office take of Summit Entertainment's "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" -- everybody expected it to do big business -- but the numbers are still rather astonishing: The third-best domestic opening in history (only "The Dark Knight" and "Spider-Man 3" did better); an estimated $140.7 million in North American ticket sales, which is double the business of the first movie in the franchise (titled, simply, "Twilight"); and the all-time best opening day (an estimated $72.7 million on Friday, vs. $67.2 million for "The Dark Knight," even though the latter opened in 342 more theaters).

'The Twilight Saga: New Moon'
'The Twilight Saga: New Moon'
Numbers for the overall "Twilight" franchise are even more impressive: 70 million copies of the books in Stephenie Meyer's young-adult "Twilight" vampire series, on which the movies are based, have sold worldwide. The first "Twlight" movie (originally released Nov. 2008) pulled in $385 million at the box office internationally, and more than $167 million in DVD sales so far (some three million copies sold in one day upon its initial release last spring).

Global stats on the vast "Twilight" licensing business are hard to come by, but all indications are that sales of tie-in products (including clothing, jewelry, board games, dolls, make-up, etc.) are stratospheric, with the Times of London estimating licensed-merch sales revenue of $166 million in the U.K. alone.

With a sequel, "Eclipse," due out this summer, we're looking at a billion-dollar franchise from just the movies alone.

To help make sense of the "Twilight" phenomenon and the demographic that powers it, I turned to a keen observer of the teen-entertainment market -- a guy who is himself profiting from the current vampire mania. For this latest edition of Dumenco's Media People -- an ongoing series of conversations with media grandees -- I interviewed Matthew Rettenmund, founder and editor in chief of Popstar! (the breathless exclamation point is officially part of the name, but for the sake of readability, I'll exclude it henceforth). The independently published glossy, based in New York, is one of a handful of titles (along with Bauer Publishing's J-14 and M) that dominate the teen-entertainment market created by now-defunct 16 magazine in the '50s. Popstar, which helped introduce stars such as Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers and Zac Efron to the world by giving them their first magazine covers, has a readership of 1.9 million, according to the 2009 MRI Teenmark Audience study.

Simon Dumenco: Last time I talked to you about a massive teen-girl cultural phenomenon, it was "High School Musical." I remember you telling me Zac Efron was as big as Leonardo DiCaprio during his "Titanic" peak. How do Edward and Jacob of "Twilight" -- Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner -- rate right now?

Matthew Rettenmund
Matthew Rettenmund
Matthew Rettenmund: In a way, Rob Pattinson and Taylor Lautner are as big as Zac Efron, and they share a lot in common -- right now, they're only as famous as the franchise. Like Zac, they'll be faced with choices that will lead to them getting even bigger ... or disappearing. I would think both will just get bigger. In the teen-entertainment market, Rob and Taylor are the biggest thing around at the moment.

Dumenco: There's almost a Beatlemania aspect to it, particularly in regard to Pattinson. It's kind of scary. You really have to pity the guy.

Rettenmund: I have no pity for rich, beautiful, famous people, unless they truly have sought to avoid being in that position. He seems to be someone who isn't eating up the attention, and yet he's chosen to go along with the entire series, knowing it would get worse. I think he'll do fine. Lucky for him, he's not a kid [Pattinson is 23] and so hopefully is well equipped to weather the frenzy.

Dumenco: You know, I went to a play last week, and I had time to kill because I got there early, so I went into this 99-cent store next door. There was all this "High School Musical" merchandise on sale. Funny to be reminded how quickly audiences move on. Teen audiences, adult audiences, every audience.

Rettenmund: Right now, with Twilight, it's the franchise that is big. The stars' need to make that popularity rub off on them so that they can carry it on into new and different roles. Franchises can't change as easily as actors, so franchises usually wind up being discounted goods eventually. Though a literary series such as "Twilight" has a great chance, like "Harry Potter," of standing the test of time.

Dumenco: "Twilight" has been great for Popstar. You've put out a "Twilight"-themed issue.

Rettenmund: Yes, we currently have an issue on sale called "Movie Mania: Unofficial New Moon Confidential." It's filled with facts about and photos of the "New Moon" cast, even the ones who only have a line or two.

Dumenco: How big a part of Popstar's circulation is newsstand sales?

Rettenmund: Newsstand is over 90%.

Dumenco: You're 90% newsstand? That's a fantastic business! [Popstar puts out 12 issues a year at $3.99 a pop.] Your readers are paying more for you than adults pay for, like, The New Yorker.

Anyway, I wanted to ask you about putting the whole current vampire mania in recent historical perspective. I'm thinking about that book you wrote about pop culture in the '80s. I remember that being filled with "facts and photos" too. You're big on "facts and photos"! [laughter] The title was "Totally Awesome '80s".

Rettenmund: Yes. I should have trademarked that phrase.

Dumenco: You came out with that way before the whole VH1 '80s obsession.

Rettenmund: Way before. 1996.

Dumenco: I'm asking because one of the iconic movies of the '80s, at least for teens, was vampire flick "The Lost Boys." My sense is that "Twilight" is way bigger now than "The Lost Boys" in its day, right? Or is it just that the media machine amplifies things much faster and louder now?

Rettenmund: Oh, yes. "The Lost Boys" was a successful movie -- it made over $30 million 22 years ago. But it was very far from being a cultural phenomenon. "Twilight" is more like "Harry Potter." I don't think "The Lost Boys" is as universal as "Twilight" attempts to be. There are not as many iconic elements in it. It was just a great, fun, inventive twist on the genre, whereas "Twilight" is mainly a sweeping love story. It's more like "Titanic," film-wise.

Dumenco: "Titanic," of course, was one of those great crossover moments, when teen and adult pop-culture merged. And since then, teen/tween pop culture has only gotten further entangled with adult pop-culture. Like, Liz Lemon drops a "Zac Efron" reference on "30 Rock," and everybody is expected to get it.

Rettenmund: It's amazing and strange how tween pop-culture is consumed by adults. There are so many unashamed adults who love "Twilight" and who swoon over 17-year-old Taylor Lautner.

Dumenco: And Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart [Bella of the "Twilight" series, caught in a love triangle of sorts with Pattinson's Edward and Lautner's Jacob] show up on the cover of the celeb weeklies. And Lautner's reportedly been shot for the cover of Rolling Stone.

Rettenmund: You know the phrase, "As I get older, they just keep getting younger"? Well, that could be said about our society, and certainly about the celebrity magazines aimed at adults.

Dumenco: Remind me when you founded Popstar?

Rettenmund: 1998. We're 11. I guess now that Popstar is 11, we'll soon be showing up on the pages of Us Weekly! [laughter]

Dumenco: Did you see the tweenification of adult pop-culture coming to this extent? Like, did you anticipate 11 years ago that you'd be in competition with Us Weekly and Star et al? I mean, girls that are buying Popstar must be also buying People as well when Robert Pattinson and "HIS MESSY LOVE LIFE" shows up on its cover -- and even Vanity Fair, because he's their December cover boy. And both People and Us Weekly have put out special "Twilight" newsstand extras.

Rettenmund: To think they need to come into the teen-entertainment territory to sell magazines! It's bizarre. The unfortunate side effect is when stars have to decide, "Do I wanna be on Vanity Fair or do I wanna do a shoot for Popstar?"

Dumenco: When did you realize "Twilight" would be huge?

Rettenmund: "Twilight" was a hard one to see coming. Popstar was pitched a set visit to "Twilight," and we were unsure -- it is certainly very edgy and sensual compared to everything else in our magazine. But a persistent publicist pointed out that all of the cast, mostly unknowns, were ranking super high on Yahoo searches, so we took a chance. We were the only teen-entertainment magazine on that set. We ran an introductory spread months before it came out and by the time it was released we were confident it would be gigantic. After we decided it would be big, we were not at all surprised at just how big it got. Love stories never go out of style.

Justin Bieber
Justin Bieber
Dumenco: Who else matters to your audience right now?

Rettenmund: The next biggest would be Justin Bieber. He's 15 and looks even younger, so it's worlds away in vibe from "Twilight." But he's a YouTube sensation, and that do-it-yourself fantasy is powerful. He's cute, he can sing and dance, and he is putting out music thanks to a deal with Usher, so he's got coolness cred.

Dumenco: Yeah, I read about him -- a pretty astonishing case of YouTube-created stardom. Literally, it was his mom putting videos of him singing on YouTube, and he quickly got a massive fanbase. And he's from, like, Nowheresville, Canada, right? Millions of YouTube views later, and he's got Usher and, supposedly, Justin Timberlake fighting over signing him to their respective labels. [FYI: Hours after this interview was conducted on Friday, police pulled the plug on a Justin Bieber appearance at a Long Island mall, after an estimated 3,000 fans caused near-riot-like conditions, resulting in injuries and the arrest of an Island Def Jam Records executive who authorities blamed for failing to quell the chaos. You can see a brief YouTube video of the mob scene here.]

And Jonas Brothers, I'm assuming ,are still big-ish?

Rettenmund: Jonas Brothers are still seen as big stars, but after three years, they are not as prominent in the teen magazines. Nick is doing a solo side project: Nick Jonas and the Administration. We see big things for that.

Taylor Swift is another big star at the moment. [FYI: Swift beat out Michael Jackson for Artist of the Year at the American Music Awards Sunday night.] She's huge for being pretty, nice but not without an edge -- witness her repeated efforts to embarrass her ex, Joe Jonas -- and for her amazing music and work ethic. As with most of the famous girls, it always helps if they've had interesting famous boyfriends or even rumored boyfriends. What tends to make them pop is if they do more than sing and act but also have gossip-worthy lives.

Dumenco: How old is Taylor Swift?

Rettenmund: She's 20 on Dec. 13.

Dumenco: Funny that you know that off the top of your head! [laughter] She's now dating, supposedly, Taylor Lautner, right? "Taylor Squared," as the tabloids put it.

Rettenmund: Taylor Swift all but admitted she's dating Taylor Lautner during her "Saturday Night Live" gig, but won't speak of it otherwise. She handled "SNL" well. These teen stars today, they have so many more responsibilities than the teen stars of yesteryear. There was zero chance of things like hosting "SNL" in the past. Now, teens are treated like little adults by the industry. Popstar tries to keep them kids -- we keep the editorial totally positive.

Taylor Swift recently hosted 'SNL.'
Taylor Swift recently hosted 'SNL.' Credit: NBC
Dumenco: It's weird to think of these young stars -- sometimes literal minors -- anchoring billion-dollar franchises. So much pressure!

Rettenmund: It would be nice if grown-up celebrity magazines didn't mock children for how they look on red carpets and if grown-up blogs didn't harp on famous children too much. Just because they're famous and mature doesn't mean they aren't kids who might be freaking out inside. I think fame does that to us all; we forget that they are people. It's just doubly sad when the object of ridicule is a child.

Dumenco: It's disgusting, really. Do you think the celebrity-industrial complex has gotten a lot more toxic in the 11 years you've been doing Popstar?

Rettenmund: Oh, yes! When Popstar first started, we were considered squeaky clean because we weren't doing sex articles like you might find in older titles, like the late, great YM. Now, we're considered squeaky clean because we don't rip subjects to shreds with vulgar language, like you'd find on almost any blog.

Dumenco: Oh, god, yes, the Bonnie Fuller-ized YM. People forget she was the editor of YM in the early '90s, and was doing Cosmo for teens, basically. Set a whole new adult tone for teen mags, then went on to set a whole new childish tone for the adult mags!

Rettenmund: [laughter] In that way, she seems to have drawn them together singlehandedly!

Dumenco: Yeah, and then got aided and abetted once the blog world and TMZ came on the scene. But I digress. You know, one last thing I wanted to ask you. I've been reading about how vampires tend to rise as cultural phenomena in direct proportion to our national neuroses related to economic downturns. [Fun fact: "The Lost Boys" was released in 1987 -- the year the stock market got a 23% haircut on Black Monday.] How much do you think about the underlying media theory or cultural theory that makes Popstar-worthy stars and franchises hot or not hot?

Rettenmund: I am a very analytical person -- analytical to death -- but after the fact. With Popstar, we put into the magazine exactly who the readers ask for or who we assume they will want based on what they're asking for in other stars. In that way, the readers really direct us. Our Twitter and MySpace and our blog at PopstarOnline.com are their megaphones and we're all ears.

Dumenco: OK, one last question -- for real this time. Who's on your cover five years from now? Suri Cruise? One of the Octomom kids? Or Balloon Boy, by then star of his own Nickelodeon series?

Rettenmund: Lourdes Leon, baby, Lourdes Leon.

~ ~ ~
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco

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