Nancy Kirkpatrick, Summit Entertainment

How’s this for a Hollywood ending? A woman moves across the country from her home in Virginia to Los Angeles with her husband and lands an impressive, 25-years-plus career in the film business. And for the sequel, she turned Transylvania into Beatlemania.

With more than two decades in PR, first at Warner Bros., then at Paramount, Nancy Kirkpatrick has earned a reputation as a big-picture strategist who remains unflappable while directing campaigns for Tinseltown’s legendary egos. Today, she is president-worldwide marketing for Summit Entertainment and best known as the guru/guardian of the Twilight film franchise.

“She has this uncanny ability to put herself into the head of a 13- to 25-year-old woman or an 18- to 35-year-old male or any demographic,” says Striker Entertainment president Russell Binder, who manages Twilight‘s licensing program.

Kirkpatrick, 54, first realized the strength of Stephenie Meyer’s young-adult literary property in early 2008 when she attended a bookstore event at the ungothly hour of 10 a.m. “I drove to Pasadena and a line of 1,500 people were waiting to hear her do this reading,” Kirkpatrick says, sounding stunned. “And I went, ‘OK, maybe we have a shot here.'”

Some $383.5 million in worldwide box office sales later—not to mention riot-inducing mall appearances—Kirk-patrick has turned a vampire-meets-girl story starring virtual unknowns Kristen Stewart (Bella) and Robert Pattinson (Edward) into a huge hit.

Nevertheless, Twilight‘s success was far from a slam dunk. Summit was hardly a big-name studio. (It was best known, if at all, for flops Penelope and Sex Drive.) Moreover, Twilight wasn’t an “It” film during the early-2008 shoot, Kirkpatrick insists, despite the novels’ success. “When we pitched set visits, entertainment press weren’t interested,” she says. “People forget that these kids were complete unknowns in an unknown movie; we had to turn them into movie stars.”

Meyer’s connection with female fans was central to Summit’s outreach. “People want to live in that world” is how Kirkpatrick describes the bond she wanted to extend to marketing.

Meyer did readings and answered questions on her MySpace page. The studio “just continued and expanded” this relationship by sharing info with fans, first online and even on set. Kirkpatrick says the decision to work with a single creative agency, L.A.-based Cimarron Group, was deliberate to ensure a strategic, cohesive program.

In May 2008, Summit released a teaser trailer to pique curiosity and build buzz for the love story. Mission accomplished. “People started going, ‘Whoa, what is this?'” recalls Kirkpatrick, whose internal marketing team includes svp-creative advertising Tim Sommerfeld, svp-media Gail Heaney and evp-marketing Jack Pan.

But Comic-Con would be the real indicator of whether the flick could fill seats. Kirkpatrick recalls pulling up one Wednesday night in July to beat the midday traffic for her Thursday panel. Droves of diehards were staked out—she wondered who had the fortune of such fanaticism. “I walked over and it was for Twilight!” she says, still sounding genuinely shocked one year later. “It was a miracle [that] glass didn’t shatter because of the screaming at our panel.”

In the fall, marketing moved in on males and played up Twilight‘s action aspect. Then, weeks before the opening, “Robsten” et al. were dispatched to various malls for a Twilight Tour coinciding with the launch of movie merchandise at Hot Topic, which got four to six weeks of exposure in windows and boutiques inside the 600-plus stores. The wristband “pass” needed to access the appearances required purchasing a $30 Twilight Tee. Hot Topic’s CEO credits the program with saving sales during a slump.

By Nov. 21, as the movie hit screens, the target audience was well primed, and a franchise about the undead came alive, thanks to some smart marketing.