A History of Box-Office Magic: Will Anything Top ‘Harry Potter’?

$168 million in its first weekend. $92.1 million in its first day. $43.5 million in its first public screenings. These are incredible numbers, but allow me to cast a small memory charm on you for a moment. The success of “Harry Potter” goes well, well beyond the current and long-term success of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.”

As such, there are just three numbers I want you to consider: 2.177, 84.7 and 10. The first figure there represents the amount of dollars, in billions, that this eight-film franchise has grossed to date. The second figure represents a percentage, specifically the percentage of positive reviews for all eights films averaged together. The last, of course, would be the number of years it took to accomplish all that. So if it’s true that life amounts to the perfect combination of time, money and love, then “Harry Potter” has truly been “The Franchise That Lived.”

The story begins with David Heyman, a British film producer. No, he had no previous clout or influence. He helped bring “Superbad” director Greg Mottola’s early feature “The Daytrippers” to the big screen as well as the horror film “Ravenous” starring Guy Pearce. That’s pretty much it. In 1999, he decided to take a gamble and purchase the rights to the first four books in a young adult fantasy series by J.K. Rowling. At that time, the first two books were just beginning to make waves; I personally received my first copy in the summer of that same year. The total cost to those rights? $2 million. Producers everywhere have been trying to do the same thing with the every imaginable up-and-coming young-adult book series for 10-plus years now.

Teamed with Warner Bros., Heyman brought Chris Columbus, original writer of “The Goonies” and “Gremlins,” who had broken through as a director with the family classic “Home Alone.” You might say that few talents were better adept at working on fantasy films and especially working with kids. Columbus would direct the first two “Potter” films and produce the third.

At the time “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” entered production, likely in late 1999 early 2000, the first three books in the series had been picking up steam. After the finishing touch of a John Williams score, the film debuted on Nov. 16, 2001. Despite costing just $125 million to make, “Sorcerer’s Stone” took in $90.2 million in its opening weekend and went on to gross $974 million worldwide, which currently ranks as the ninth biggest film ever.

The trend had been set early for the fledgling franchise. “Sorcerer’s Stone” also boasts an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the only criticisms being that the adaptation aimed to be as fan-pleasing as possible. I would agree. Columbus also set a family friendly tone for the franchise (which would be drastically changed a film at a time after his departure). Keeping the film a PG children’s fantasy certainly helped this first “Potter” become the franchise’s most profitable entry to date, though credit should chiefly go to the allure of seeing the book on screen for the very first time.

When “Chamber of Secrets” made its theatrical run exactly one year later in 2002, fan and critic approval stayed the same, but numbers were down (not all that surprisingly). The film made $878.6 million around the globe (currently 21st all time), nearly $100 million fewer than the first entry.

By this point, the books and movies had become a worldwide phenomenon. No one questioned whether “Potter” would have the steam to go seven films, but many did wonder whether the kids would eventually outgrow the franchise in the physical maturing sense. And rightfully so; even the biggest franchises took three years between features, such as James Bond. Without filming multiple films at once a la “Lord of the Rings,” it was preposterous to assume that every “Harry Potter” film would come out before the actors were nearly 30. Yet Warner Bros. had the franchise fast-tracked. “Prisoner of Azkaban” came out a year and a half later in 2004, “Goblet of Fire” in 2005, “Order of the Phoenix” in 2007, “Half-Blood Prince” in 2009 and finally the “Deathly Hallows” films in 2010 and 2011. Not too much of a reach to have a 20-year-old Daniel Radcliffe play 17-year-old Harry Potter.

Eight films in 10 years seems ridiculous, but okay, definitely doable. Even if you had known that’s what Warner Bros. would do, however, you’d still be stumped as to how they would be able to maintain the standard of quality. “Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Chamber of Secrets” were good films, yet they were the shortest of the books and clocked in at 152 and 161 minutes respectively, about two and half hours per film. And those adaptations were not without their problems either. With tomes awaiting in “Goblet of Fire” and beyond, it seemed certain that too much would be sacrificed and the magic would start to wear off. But no, not so.

After “Prisoner of Azkaban,” some doubt might’ve seeped in. The third film was the most praised by critics (91% RT score), but made close to $100 million less than “Chamber of Secrets,” about $795 million worldwide. A slip in quality would certainly guarantee successively depleted box-office takes for the future films, even though the budget remained relatively stagnant for each film and films that make, say, $500-600 million worldwide still warrant sequels and the label of “success.”

“Goblet of Fire” became key to the rest of the franchise. As the film that marked the transition between family friendly and decidedly dark and scary, success would be huge, especially in terms of quality. With 87% on Rotten Tomatoes, Mike Newell’s lone directorial contribution to the series out-grossed “Chamber of Secrets” to become the second biggest “Potter” film.

The film took a step in maturity that would become a leap once David Yates took over the series starting with “Order of the Phoenix.” Suddenly the dark tone helped draw in bigger box-office numbers for films five, six and seven part one, likely due to attracted new customers who had long assumed “Harry Potter” was child’s play. The maturity Yates brought to the films shined through with the now-young adult leading actors and the critical approval continued, though the RT scores are generally higher for the earlier films. The later films all grossed in the mid-$900-million range at the international box office, with “Deathly Hallows Part 1” coming the closest to beating “Sorcerer’s Stone.”

So how could the finale have been anything less than superb? With momentum rising thanks to the well-marketed conclusion, “Deathly Hallows Part 2” should be well on its way to owning the title of biggest “Potter” film yet, and how fitting that cinema’s most unlikely mega-franchise should go out on top.

Now, the question that should be on everyone’s tongues as this huge chapter of film history comes to a close is will we ever see anything like this again?

There will no doubt be hit book series for Hollywood to adapt. That much has already proved true. We’ve already seen “The Twilight Saga” do incredible business, which will likely continue through the fourth and fifth films in November of this and next year. “The Hunger Games” also looks to carve out its own franchise identity starting next March. Those books don’t have the following of “Harry Potter” and have ended at  just three or four books, but they prove that a franchise of similar magnitude is not out of the realm of possibility.

The other difference between “Potter” and “Twilight” for example, would unquestionably be quality. An average of the Rotten Tomatoes scores for the three “Twilight” films so far equals 42%, exactly half the average of “Potter.” Although equipped with a teenage girl stigma, the films simply don’t measure up in the film community as the books do in that community. 84.7% is a tough number for any film to reach, let alone it being the average score of films in a franchise. Even the franchises that will one day reach seven films (“Fast and Furious,” maybe “Resident Evil”) will not be able to average that score, and even then the box-office numbers won’t compare. Even 23 films in, Mr. 007 himself has had his share of misfires, and that franchise has been around almost 50 years. If “Potter” kept going, it would make 40 films in that same amount of time.

So even if quality and box-office power could be matched, the quick turnaround would seem unlikely. The real trick to Potter’s success undoubtedly had to do with the strength of its entries and the prowess of its creator. J.K. Rowling envisioned these books as a seven-part series. As she wrote, this trajectory was in mind, a risky move when you have no idea if anyone will publish or care to read seven of your books. Rather than come up with a great story for a sequel after the first succeeded, each book was part of one greater arc in addition to the excellent individual story arcs.

Hollywood judges the continuation of most movie franchises on a per-film basis. Even “The Chronicles of Narnia,” a long-established seven-part series with decades of clout built up, doesn’t have the overarching storyline, just blips of continuity. Disney evaluated the long-term potential of the box-office numbers and decided to dump the franchise. “Narnia” would’ve had a shot at comparing to “Potter,” but the films didn’t measure up in terms of quality after the first. C.S. Lewis’ novels were as beloved as “Lord of the Rings.” That should tell you how important the minds putting these films together were in creating the success of “Harry Potter” and how that success was a complete and powerful synergy between so many great forces (Rowling, Columbus, Heyman, writer Steve Kloves, Radcliffe, John Williams, etc.). The magic of the “Potter” films has no clear secret, answer or source — and that’s why we may never again see anything like it.


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