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The end nears for 'Harry Potter' on film

With the impending release of 'Deathly Hallows — Part 1,' the makers of the blockbuster series look back on what a rival calls 'the best-managed franchise that we've ever seen, top to bottom.'

November 07, 2010|By Geoff Boucher and Claudia Eller, Los Angeles Times

On a sticky June night just outside London, the magic finally came to an end for the cast and crew of the " Harry Potter" movies. After a decade together, the small army that has been the busiest in British filmmaking wrapped the final shoot of the last "Potter" production.

The green-screen scene featuring the now world-famous main characters — a trio of young fugitive wizards named Harry, Ron and Hermione — required actors Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson to hurl themselves onto some off-camera mats to escape danger at the Ministry of Magic. It was an oddly slapstick finish for such a monumental franchise — but that didn't sap the emotion of the moment.

"I admit it, I did cry like a little girl," Radcliffe said, recalling the day. "There was a feeling that I had, that we all had, that it was the end of something very special."

It's doubtful that pop culture will ever see a phenomenon quite like this sprawling tale that for a decade cast a spell on the page, the screen and beyond. The fantasy epic begins its Hollywood fade-out Nov. 19 with the release of " Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1" and finishes next summer with the eighth film, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2."

Both movies are poised to be global blockbusters — and may even earn the franchise its first nominations in marquee Academy Award categories — but the numbers posted by their predecessor films are extraordinary already. The six Warner Bros. movies released to date have pulled in $5.7 billion at theaters worldwide; home video adds an additional $1.3 billion. The seven novels from which they sprang, written by J.K. Rowling, account for 400 million books sold in 69 languages.

Then there's a jaw-dropping $7 billion in retail products, a recently opened amusement attraction in Orlando, touring exhibits of props and costumes and plans for a permanent exhibit outside London.

Still, the true impact of the books and films may not be fully recognized for a decade or two. With ever-rising ticket prices, box-office records don't stand for long, but no franchise has delivered anything close to eight films in 10 years.

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roducer David Heyman and his team were able to keep their cast intact — including the young lead stars who started as adolescents and grew into young adults with millions in the bank, and no scandals. The movies arrived even as the audience for Rowling's books grew, creating a unique synergistic effect. The "Potter" movies have earned Warner Bros. more than $1 billion in profit — and the admiration of industry rivals.

"The books and movies fed each other brilliantly to become these commercial tidal waves," said veteran literary agent Ron Bernstein, of International Creative Management, who has no connection to the books or films.

Former Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook, who launched his own mega-franchise with "Pirates of the Caribbean," agreed that "Harry Potter" has been a breed apart.

"It has unequivocally been the best-managed franchise that we've ever seen, top to bottom," he said. "The movies have been terrific and Warner Bros. managed to position each one as a worldwide event. Each movie has been unique and built on the last one and the anticipation has never been better. They've honored the source material and done everything right."

And, unlike, say, "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the "Potter" movies adapted a living, breathing literary sensation whose ending was unknown. Rowling would visit the set and sometimes whisper to actors hints of their characters' destiny, but screenwriter Steve Kloves, who penned seven of the eight scripts, said no one really knew how everything would conclude.

The entire exercise, he said, was a "10-year tightrope walk … and something that will be never be done again for the simple reason that you won't see another Jo Rowling come along."

Lucky break

The rags-to-riches story of Rowling seems as unreal as the world of dragons and goblins she created. Joanne Kathleen Rowling ("J.K." was manufactured by a publishing executive who thought a gender-neutral author name might sell more books to boys) was a single mom in Edinburgh, getting by with the help of welfare, when she finished "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," her first novel.

In late 1997, a copy of the book found its way to Heyman's London office but ended up on a shelf for low-priority leads. A curious secretary took it home for the weekend. Her enthusiasm prompted Heyman to get past what he has called "that rubbish title," and the story captured his imagination.

"The funny thing is with all of the magic, all of the wizardry, what really makes the 'Harry Potter' stories work are the characters," he said. "The fantastical elements and the action are wonderful, but the characters are what people remember."

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