The Harry Potter movie series keeps working box-office magic for Warner Bros. -- thanks not to sorcery, but to a loyal fan base and careful, consistent management of the franchise.
"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" got off to the best start in the series, grossing $140 million domestically in five days starting with Wednesday's opening, Warner Bros. estimated Sunday. Worldwide, the film conjured up $330 million.
In the film, Harry returns for his fifth year of study at Hogwarts school of magic. Meeting secretly with a group of students who call themselves "Dumbledore's Army," he teaches them how to defend against the Dark Arts.
If this Saturday's release of the final book gives Potter mania a second wind, analysts say the latest film might be the first to top $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales.
"Very few mega-franchises have this kind of immediate, bottom-line impact on a studio," said analyst Tuna Amobi of Standard & Poor's.
Amobi said the film cost at least $250 million to make and release, but that it could bring the studio's parent, Time Warner Inc., several hundred million dollars in profit over the next 12 months. That estimate includes a likely DVD windfall during the holiday season.
The PG-13 movie was easily No. 1 for the weekend, knocking robot thriller "Transformers" to No. 2. And it was tops in all 44 overseas territories in which it opened.
Audiences overall rated the film an "A-minus" in exit surveys, Warner Bros. said, and reviews have generally been positive.
The movie got a boost from mega-screen Imax theaters, which are showing its 18-minute finale in 3-D. Imax sales in the U.S. and Canada accounted for $7.3 million, a five-day record for the chain.
The previous four movies based on J.K. Rowling's bestselling fantasy novels grossed from $796 million to $974 million apiece globally during their full runs -- a tight range in the boom-and-bust film business.
Never rocking the boat has been key to Warner Bros.' success. From the outset, the marketing team established a distinct look to the franchise -- from the old-fashioned font on the posters, billboards and bus ads to their dark background colors.
The most noticeable change is that the young stars have grown up from the early, PG-rated films, starting with 2001's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."
The consistency extends well beyond the marketing.
The studio and producer David Heyman have used four different directors along the way, but they have taken pains to keep the main cast intact -- not unlike a TV network with a long-running hit.
Emma Watson, for example, who plays Hermione Granger, reportedly was reluctant to reprise her role after the last movie but re-upped for about $4 million.
Casting top British actors in supporting roles has added adult appeal and given the series a classy, cohesive tone. The latest film features Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman and Imelda Staunton, among others.
Warner Bros. has been switching between summer and fall releases to keep the films coming without much more than a year and a half between installments, said Dan Fellman, the studio's president of domestic distribution.
"We want them as close together as possible and as close to the release of the books as possible," Fellman said.
Also, as the young stars age, that adds pressure to keep up the production pace.
The sixth movie, "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince," is slated for release Nov. 21, 2008.
After Warner Bros.' mediocre box-office results in 2006 -- when the studio lacked a Potter film -- the release comes at an opportune time.
Warner Bros.' profit margins lately have trailed those of 20th Century Fox and Walt Disney Co., Amobi said, but have perked up in years when a Potter film has come out.
Warner Bros. often partners with outside investors, such as Virtual Studios and Legendary Pictures, on its big-budget productions. Not surprisingly, its treasured Potter series is a notable exception.
Although the series appears to be winding down, with only the sixth and seventh books to draw from, Time Warner has been taking steps to extend the Potter franchise, Amobi said.
The company and Florida's Universal Orlando Resort unveiled plans in late May to build a Potter "theme park within a theme park" that would open in 2009.
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The latest Harry Potter film, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," got off to the strongest launch in the series.
"Transformers" dropped 49% from its No. 1 opening last weekend, a decent hold for a summer blockbuster. "Ratatouille" and "Live Free or Die Hard" also are showing strength.
Michael Moore's "Sicko," with its tough-sell healthcare subject, is looking more like a solid documentary hit akin to "Bowling for Columbine" ($21.6 million domestically) than a monster on the scale of "Fahrenheit 9/11" ($119.2 million).
The R-rated horror film "Captivity" got no lift from the recent controversy surrounding its graphic marketing materials. It opened at $1.5 million, missing the top 10.
Preliminary results (in millions) in the U.S. and Canada, based on studio projections:
*--* MOVIE 3-DAY TOTAL (STUDIO) GROSS (MILLS.) (MILLS.) 1 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix $77.4 $140.0 1 (Warner Bros.) 2 Transformers (Paramount) 36.0 223.0 2 3 Ratatouille (Disney) 18.0 143.0 3 4 Live Free or Die Hard (20th Century Fox) 10.9 102.9 3 5 License to Wed (Warner Bros.) 7.4 30.5 2 6 1408 (Weinstein/MGM) 5.0 62.2 4 7 Evan Almighty (Universal) 5.0 87.9 4 8 Knocked Up (Universal) 3.7 138.2 7 9 Sicko (Weinstein/Lions Gate) 2.7 15.9 4 10 Ocean's Thirteen (Warner Bros.) 1.9 112.4 6
*--* 3-day gross Change Year-to-date gross Change (in millions) from 2006 (in billions) from 2006 $180.0 +13.4% $5.29 +4.2%
Note: A movie may be shown on more than one screen at each venue
Source: Media by Numbers