Heyman sent the book to his friend and fellow Brit Lionel Wigram, a production executive at Warner Bros., to gauge the studio's interest. Wigram said some in Burbank questioned the viability of the creaky fantasy-adventure genre and viewed the tale of a magical boarding school called Hogwarts as too British for the American heartland. "Don't spend too much on it," was the word from the home office, Wigram recalled.
Warner Bros. secured the rights for four "Harry Potter" novels for about $2 million. At that point, only the first book was on shelves in England and none had reached America. Warner Bros. tried to get a financial partner on the project, reaching out to studios including Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks, which passed.
Once the books became a sensation, greenlighting the first "Potter" film became a major priority at Warner Bros., where Alan Horn had recently taken over as president and Barry Meyer as chairman (replacing longtime studio chiefs Terry Semel and Bob Daly). DreamWorks circled back and proposed a partnership, but Horn wisely declined. There was one aspect of the DreamWorks talks that did intrigue him, however.
"I did think it would be worthwhile for Steven Spielberg to direct," said Horn, who offered it to the filmmaker. Spielberg, though, opted to take on Warner's 2001 sci-fi film "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence."
Chris Columbus, director of "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire," was then tapped for the job. Initially, Rowling wasn't high on the idea.
"She did not know Chris Columbus' work and she had some trepidations," Horn said. "She thought perhaps it should be a British director." But after Columbus' first meeting with Rowling, during which they visited the coffee shop where she wrote part of the first book, she was convinced.
"We really hit it off," said Columbus, recalling they had similar tastes in books and agreed that "Revolver" was the best Beatles album. "She's got a wicked sense of humor and was youthful and hip."
Horn, however, was haunted by an interview he heard Rowling give in which she said she treasured the way readers used their imaginations to fill in the specific sights and sounds of the Potter universe. She worried that the studio might limit the magic.
"She expressed some ambivalence, even regret at having sold the motion picture rights," Horn said. "I made a little secret pledge in my mind to Ms. Rowling —and I had never met her at the time — that just as the books represented the very finest in literary quality and created this phenomenal classic, my job is to have you be proud of the cinematic interpretation of those works.
"I completely identified with her fears: 'Oh no, what are these movie people going to do?' And we discussed a lot of alternative ways to do this but the common thread was that whatever Hogwarts looked like, it would be of the highest-quality production … with the very best people we could find on the planet and we would consult with her every step of the way. "
Warner named Diane Nelson executive vice president for global brand management and her defining duty was to represent Rowling's interests, unify the studio approach to the brand and serve as quality control. The post made her, as one industry peer described it, "the midwife to the Potter success story."
Horn, who will step down next year just months before the last "Potter" film is released, has put Nelson in a similar but broader role with the DC Comics properties (among them Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern) that are seen as lifeblood for Warner Bros. after "Potter."
"The approach to 'Harry Potter' and to Jo Rowling is the approach that is a template for how we move forward and, to the credit of Alan Horn, it's a template for other studios too," Nelson said.
'Moments of anxiety'
All this is not to say that the ride for "Potter" in Hollywood has been entirely smooth. The sixth film was abruptly postponed for eight months, for instance, when Warner Bros. decided a summer release would be more profitable. Fans howled in protest. And despite advertising that the seventh installment would be in 3-D, the studio changed its mind at the last minute after it became clear to Horn, Heyman and director David Yates that they'd have to sacrifice quality to get the conversion done on time.
"When people look back, they remember the smooth parts and the success," Nelson said. "But there were plenty of moments of anxiety."
There was intense debate about casting, too, in the early days. Watson was an instant lock for the brainy Hermione, but filling the title role was more daunting.
Heyman had met Daniel Radcliffe's parents at a play and encouraged them to bring their boy for an audition. Heyman championed the 10-year-old, but not everyone was convinced. Horn said there was a huge debate and another boy was "very, very close." Ultimately, it came down to four actors, including Tom Felton, who would end up portraying Potter's nemesis, Draco Malfoy.