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Teens Fill Seats To See A More Mature 'Potter'

June 07, 2004|Patrick Day | Times Staff Writer

For Harry Potter, the third time proved the biggest charm, as "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" lured more teenagers than the previous two films, propelling the best opening of a Potter film with an estimated $92.6 million, according to studio projections released Sunday.

"Azkaban," which was more favorably reviewed than the first two films, avoided the fate of less popular family film franchises, such as "Stuart Little" or "Pokemon," which lost momentum through their sequels. Dan Fellman, president of Warner Bros. domestic distribution, boasted that "Azkaban" had the biggest opening for a third film in a series. The previous record-holder was "Austin Powers in Goldmember" in 2002, which grossed $73 million in its opening weekend.

A big factor was Harry Potter's huge fan base, many of whom have traditionally lined up the night before to see the films on opening day. "Azkaban" boasted a huge opening Friday, with an estimated $38.2 million, also bigger than either of the first two films.

Although higher preliminary Friday estimates initially fueled visions of a record opening day and weekend among some box office observers, when numbers were tallied Sunday, "Azkaban" ranked third among all opening weekends behind the record $114.8 million set by "Spider-Man" in May 2002 and "Shrek 2's" $108 million two weekends ago. Industry analysts had predicted the film, based on the third book in author J.K. Rowling's hit series, would gross between $80 million and $100 million.

"Considering the film's two-hour, 21-minute running time," Fellman maintained the numbers for "Azkaban" represented "a huge accomplishment."

The tendency of fan-driven films, however, is to open huge and drop off sharply, and in an indication that it may follow the path of many such blockbusters, "Azkaban" fell nearly 18% from Friday to Saturday, according to some estimates. "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," the second film in the series, had an $88.4 million opening weekend, but that represented 33.7% of the film's final domestic gross of $262 million. By comparison, "Finding Nemo" had an opening weekend of $70.2 million, which represented 21% of its final domestic gross of $339.7 million.

What could help keep "Azkaban" aloft is that it's the first Potter film to be released in the summer. Both previous films were released in November. According to Fellman, 27% of the schools in the U.S. had closed for the summer last week and starting today, 50% will be closed, offering the movie an expanding potential audience.

The film is also a hit overseas, where it opened in 23 international markets on Friday and in the United Kingdom on Monday, to take advantage of a national holiday. Its combined international gross was estimated at $114.1 million, including a record 23.7 million pounds ($43.5 million) in the U.K.

Perhaps the biggest threat to Harry's continued well-being (financially, anyway) is age. It's been almost three years since Warner Bros. released the first film and more than six years since the publication of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" in America, and the children who were Harry's age then are now looking to apply to college. Even Harry himself, actor Daniel Radcliffe, is not the same, because puberty is changing his appearance.

But "Azkaban's" performance could help to put those concerns to rest. According to Fellman, the segment of the audience that's grown the most from the first Potter film to "Azkaban" has been teenagers. Of audiences polled over the weekend, 40% were under 17 and 27% were between 12 and 17.

Fellman said the company had not significantly altered its marketing strategy to draw in the teen audience, but he speculated that the darker tone of the film automatically lent itself to a teen audience.

At Pacific's the Grove Stadium 14, the majority of the audience lined up Friday to see the sold-out 7 p.m. show appeared old enough to drive.

Min Lee, a 17-year-old student at Los Angeles High School, has never read any of the books, but he's seen all the movies. Although he's older now and his friend, Matthew Kim, is already a student at Pasadena City College, his interest in Harry Potter has not diminished.

"Three years ago when I watched Harry Potter I thought, 'Maybe I can fly too!' Now I know it's all fake," Lee said. "But that's the only difference in my interest between then and now."

Kim pointed out that the success of the films could be because Harry Potter has become more of a cultural icon than a fictional character.

Michael Hughes, a 54-year-old Los Angeles resident, brought his wife, son and daughter to see the film. His son is 18 and his daughter is 20.

To Hughes, the problem of age isn't with the audience as much as it is with the actors. "In my mind, [the characters] still look young," he said.

According to Brandon Gray of the box office tracking website, the Harry Potter films have successfully mastered the trick of keeping children interested for three films.

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