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THE NATION

Hollywood conjures up an extra 'Potter'

March 13, 2008|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

For "Harry Potter" and Hollywood, eight is the magic number.

Warner Bros. Pictures and the producers behind the $4.5-billion film franchise featuring the beloved boy wizard will split the seventh and final novel in the J.K. Rowling series into two films.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I" will hit theaters in November 2010, followed by "Part II" in May 2011, a decision that is being met around the world with fans' cheers but also plenty of cynical smirks. The publishing industry is learning to live without new "Potter" releases, but Hollywood just pulled off a trick that will keep its profitable hero on his broom into the next decade.

Any twist in the "Potter" universe is the stuff of global news bulletins. The books were a publishing sensation. And to an entire generation, the film saga has become a heartfelt touchstone on the level of "The Wizard of Oz" and as culturally and commercially ubiquitous as the "Star Wars" series. For all those reasons, everyone involved in the franchise is jumping forward to say an eighth film would be to serve the story, not the bottom line.

Daniel Radcliffe, the star of the franchise, said it was the dense action of the final novel that made the decision, not any executive or ledger.

"I think it's the only way you can do it, without cutting out a huge portion of the book," Radcliffe said. "There have been compartmentalized subplots in the other books that have made them easier to cut -- although those cuts were still to the horror of some fans -- but the seventh book doesn't really have any subplots. It's one driving, pounding story from the word go."

The same could be said about the relentless "Potter" franchise, which hit screens for the first time in 2001. The five "Potter" films to date have averaged $282 million in U.S. grosses, but the overall receipts go well beyond that. The faces of the stars stare out from DVDs, video games, tie-in books, toys, clothing, candy wrappers and a staggering array of other items. By some estimates, the brand represents a $20-billion enterprise, and that's without the planned "Potter"-themed complex opening next year at the Universal Orlando Resort in Florida.

Extending the "Potter" franchise is a boon to the studio and to its parent, media giant Time Warner, where recently named Chief Executive Jeffrey Bewkes is reining in costs with moves such as the recent gutting of New Line Cinema. Time Warner's stock price has stagnated since its merger with America Online eight years ago.

Right now, Radcliffe and his costars are filming the sixth installment in the franchise, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," at an old aircraft factory outside London. "It's been brilliant," Radcliffe said of the production. "It's also, I think, the funniest of the films so far."

Radcliffe is now 18 and, by the final film, will have spent half of his life in the role of the scarred orphan who finds friendship and danger within the stone corridors of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Each film (following the construct of the novels) has been framed by a school year. Producer David Heyman, a key figure in the films from Day One, was reluctant to depart from that and make the last book into two movies.

"Unlike every other book, you cannot remove elements of this book," Heyman said. "You can remove scenes of Ron playing Quidditch from the fifth book, and you can remove Hermione and S.P.E.W. [Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare] and those subplots . . . but with the seventh, that can't be done."

Rowling, who signed off on the idea of a two-part finale, has been a more frequent visitor to the sixth movie's set than with previous installments. One big reason is that she is no longer busy trying to finish the "next" "Potter" book; she walked away from her signature character in July, when the climactic "Deathly Hallows" hit stores and sold a record 11 million copies in its first 24 hours on shelves.

Alan Horn, president and chief operating officer of Warner Bros. Entertainment, will be in Las Vegas today to talk up the "Potter" plans at ShoWest, a key annual conference of movie exhibitors. Horn said Wednesday that "it would have been a disservice" to downsize "Deathly Hallows" into one film.

"This way, we have an extra hour and a half, at least, to celebrate what this franchise has been and do justice to all the words and ideas that Jo has put in the amazing story," Horn said. "This is the end of the story too. We want to celebrate it. We want to give a full meal."

David Yates, director of the fifth and sixth films, will return and make the final two films concurrently. Screenwriter Steve Kloves also returns, and, by the completion of the franchise, he will have written seven of the eight films.

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