Sunday, January 12, 2003

I see that the new Harry Potter book is likely to be published in July 2003. (Link via Instapundit ). This is good, as I am looking forward to reading it. However, in terms of timing for Warner Bros and the next movie, the date is about as bad as can be. Warners released the first Harry Potter movie at the end of 2001, which was just about the peak of Harry Potter mania. They had the idea that they could release one movie every holiday season for seven years and make squillions of dollars each time.

And the first Harry Potter movie did make squillions of dollars (okay, $900 million at the worldwide box office, probably plus a similar amount again on VHS, DVD and various other media, so in fact billions of dollars). The movie was competently made, faithful to the book, and fairly lifeless, and in box office terms its performance was somewhat "front loaded", meaning it did most of its business in the first couple of weeks, and word of mouth and repeat business were not all that great. Clearly, the magic is in the books, and not the films. The films are not central to the franchise, and are just about coming along for the ride, despite what Warners would like you (or at least its long suffering shareholders) to think.

Warners then got the second movie made, and we saw it a couple of months ago. It was once again competently made but not all that exciting, and while it made plenty of money, its grosses were down about 20% on the first film. Warners had hoped that J.K. Rowling would have the fifth Harry Potter book out by then, and that the publicity from the release of another book would help promote the movie. Sadly, though, that didn't happened. On top of that, the cast and crew of the films found the pace a bit gruelling, and so Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs Doubtfire), the director of the first two movies, quit, and it was announced that a new director, Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, A Little Princess), would take over for the third movie. The release date of the third movie was delayed for six months to May 2004 in order that everyone could get some rest. This did solve a certain problem that Warners had with their release schedule, as they will be releasing The Matrix Reloaded this summer and Matrix Revolutions this November, and it would have been a bit awkward to find a date for the third Harry Potter movie that didn't get in the way of the Matrix film and also The Return of the King . (While this is not technically a Warner Bros movie, it was produced by New Line Cinema, which also belongs to AOL TIme Warner, and Warners have to show their corporate partners some courtesy by staying away from their release dates).

However, the new book is now out in July. We should therefore expect lots of Harry Potter hype for the second half of the year, and from this point of view it would be good for Warners to have a new Harry Potter film out at the end of the year. And there isn't going to be one. Yes, the paperback release of the fifth book will probably coincide with the release of the third movie, but I suspect most children will have nagged their parents to get them the hardback by then in order that they avoid social death. The presence of the new book will no doubt boost the film, but not as much as it would if the timing was better.

Plus of course there remains the issue of whether the third film (and the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh films) can be any good. The strategy that has been adopted so far, which is slavishly film every scene and event in the books, is a low risk strategy, but it will not work for much longer. This technique leads to long, slow paced, not very exciting films, which are at least of decent quality. It minimises the chance of making a terrible film, but also makes it unlikely that we will see a very good film. The effort put into making the films has been technical. There has been very little intellectual effort put into seeing, say, which parts are the story are more important.

This can go on for one more film. The third book is longer than the first two, but is relatively short. However, the fourth book is twice as long. By all reports, the fifth book will be even longer. The books are getting longer, denser, and more morally complex. Structurally this makes perfect sense, as life gets denser and more morally complex as you go through your teenage years. When the filmmakers get to the fourth book, they will either find themselves making films that are five hours long, or the writers doing the adaptation start doing some actual adapting.

This will probably be good, as the audience will be getting tired of dull adaptations by then. If grosses continue to drop by 20% per film, then the fourth film is about the time Warners will start to be getting unhappy with them, too. Thus the middle to end of 2005 is probably when we discover whether the Harry Potter movies are going to successfully sail their way through the whole series of seven books or whether they are going to turn into the debacle that most Warner Bros franchises seem to. Batman and Robin anyone? The Batman movies reached a situation where the movies themselves became overwhelmed by all the marketing and all the studio interference after three or four movies. This may or may not happen here. The positives here are that (a) J.K. Rowling does have considerable creative control over the movies and (b) Alfonso Cuaron is a good direction, whereas Chis Columbus is a hack. The Batman movies went the other way. The first two movies were directed by a good director ( Tim Burton), and then the next two were directed by a hack ( Joel Schumacher). So, we can hope.

Still, I am not sure I have ever seen a series of seven movies without at least one bad one.

Update: J.K. Rowling has turned in the book, and the publication date is June 21. The book is apparently 255000 works: about a third longer than the last book.

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