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Why the Next 'Harry Potters' May Take a Spell

The film series' logistics offer challenges that a young wizard would find hard to overcome.

November 18, 2002|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

Now that "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" has scared up monstrous box-office numbers, just like the first movie, here's how the plot thickens in coming episodes:

Warner Bros. has been forced to hire a new director for the third installment. The original one burned out after the breakneck pace of back-to-back productions. The planned release date has been delayed because the parents of the actor who plays Harry wanted him to attend a prestigious school rather than being tutored on the set.

Meanwhile, the fourth J.K. Rowling adventure book is so fat -- 734 pages -- no one is sure it can be shaped into a single movie without slicing scenes, which could alienate the protective author and her fanatical young readers.

As for book No. 5, it's still in the works -- and even longer than the last one.

On top of all this, the clock is ticking for the three young stars of the "Potter" series, who already are beginning to outgrow their roles, raising the dicey issue of whether adolescent audiences would embrace a new Harry, Ron and Hermione.

As successful as the "Potter" film series has been so far, it also has become arguably the most complicated and uniquely unpredictable movie franchise ever undertaken. Warner Bros. President Alan Horn calls the effort "a Herculean task."

No other long-running movie series -- not "Star Wars," James Bond or "Batman" -- has been forced to juggle the competing interests of literary loyalty, artistic license and commercial considerations on such a grand scale.

"It's a unique balancing act," studio Chairman Barry Meyer says -- one that gets trickier, not easier, as the franchise stretches toward the end of the decade and possibly beyond.

"Things you think may be a slam dunk may not be," says media analyst Tom Wolzien of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

In all, Warner Bros. plans on making seven movies based on Rowling's completed and pending books about a bespectacled boy and his pals at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where young witches and wizards learn the finer points of potions and wands while tumbling into frightening adventures.

The studio got into the game early and cheaply. Just before the first book -- "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" -- became an international sensation, Warner Bros. paid Rowling a meager $50,000 for the right to keep rivals at bay. The following year, the studio paid an additional $500,000, this time to exercise its option to make a movie.

Since then, "Sorcerer's Stone" has generated an estimated $1.5 billion in revenue for the studio and its corporate parent, AOL Time Warner Inc., from worldwide box-office receipts and DVD, television and merchandising sales. "Chamber of Secrets" appears headed down the same road to riches, grossing an estimated $87.7 million in North American theaters last weekend.

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Movie a Year Planned

The initial plan was to maintain a schedule that would allow the studio to release a movie every year, keeping audience anticipation high. For the first two films, the strategy worked. Not so for No. 3, which won't be out until 2004 -- proving that nothing can be taken for granted when working with young stars on an ambitious scale.

Production on "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" was delayed until February when the parents of leading boy Daniel Radcliffe, 13, asked for a recess. They told the studio and London-based producer David Heyman their son had been accepted into a top-drawer school and they would like him to attend the first semester. The parents of co-star Emma Watson, 12, who plays precocious witch Hermione, wanted their daughter to study in a real classroom too. For two years, the young actors had been tutored on the set.

"The kids wanted a break," studio chief Horn says. "We're talking about real people here."

Their director, however, wanted to drop out completely.

Chris Columbus, whose works include the mainstream hits "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire," had planned on directing all seven "Potter" pictures. But last summer, halfway through shooting "Chamber of Secrets," he told the studio he was simply too spent to even contemplate a third movie, let alone four more after that.

The normally indefatigable Columbus has spent three years filming in London, uprooting his wife and their four children (ranging in age from 5 to 13) from their San Francisco home.

After beginning production on "Chamber of Secrets" just three days after the debut of "Sorcerer's Stone," Columbus says he couldn't imagine starting another grueling regimen of 16-hour days.

"I didn't think I could give the actors the same amount of energy

Breaking the news to the studio was tough, but not nearly as hard as telling the young actors with whom he had grown so close, especially Radcliffe.

Still, Columbus won't be heading back to the Bay Area soon. To ensure a smooth transition for the youngsters and their new director, Alfonso Cuaron, he agreed to stay on as a producer until "Prisoner of Azkaban" is completed late next summer.

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