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Warner Bros. Struck Gold with Harry Potter

July 18, 2011

By John C.

Warner Bros. Pictures received a bona fide box office hit over the weekend with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.  The outstanding final film in the series beat out The Dark Knight for the biggest domestic opening weekend of all time, bringing in an estimated $168 million.  Coupled with a deserved rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, this makes the film a hit on every level.  But I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t see this coming.

The Harry Potter films were a rare thing in Hollywood, as they were able to sustain themselves for ten years while always maintaining a high level of critical and commercial success.  They were based on an already beloved series of novels, and the seven sequels to the magical first film never once sold themselves short in terms of quality.  Most series burn out in one way or another and are lucky if they even make it to a trilogy.  But now that Warner Bros. can no longer fall back on the commercial success of the series, where will they continue to get their guaranteed revenue?

The money made by the eighth installment must look especially good to them right now, especially considering some of their recent financial misfires.  In March, they had Catherine Hardwick’s take on Red Riding Hood as well as Zach Sneider’s gratuitously sexualized fanboy fantasy, Sucker Punch.  I don’t think any critics could reasonably take either one seriously, and it turned out that many audiences also failed to see the point.  In June, they were obviously counting on the success of Green Lantern to become the start of a new franchise.  But the film was created with an estimated budget of $200 million and is still approximately $54 million shy of making that back in worldwide grosses.

This isn’t to say that Warner hasn’t had some other recent financial success stories, even if they weren’t for good movies.  The nasty and pointless sequel that was The Hangover Part II has already become the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time with worldwide grosses $562 million and counting.  I also must have really been in the minority on hating the pitch-black comedy that was Horrible Bosses, because the film just passed the $60 million mark since it’s release last weekend.  Next year the studio is sure to enjoy huge commercial and hopefully critical success with Christopher Nolan’s sequel to the modern masterpiece that was The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises.  It’s just that the studio no longer has a single series to rely on for guaranteed box office business.

This got me thinking about the box office side of movies in general, and how many studios rely on a single franchise to cover the costs of unpredicted losses.  As much as movies are about entertainment, it can get quite brutal on the business side of things and a lot of pieces have to fall into place for a true success story after all expenses are factored in.  After the often hefty cost of production, how much the distributor is willing to shell out in terms of targeted advertising may help lead to the success of certain films.  This is why sequels and adaptations of bestsellers are such a lucrative market, because they already have a guaranteed fan base willing to pay money and go to the theatre.

Walt Disney Pictures is able to recover from financial flops like Prince of Persia, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Mars Needs Moms with guaranteed revenue from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise as well as films from the Pixar library.  As the House of Mouse owns all of the superheros in the Marvel universe, they also scored with another brilliant move in this metaphorical chess game.  They have struck a highly lucrative $44 million deal with Paramount Pictures to be officially put into play after the release of Captain America: The First Avenger this coming Friday, that will allow them to distribute all future Marvel adaptations currently set up at Paramount.

A few years back, the small Canadian distributor eOne (formerly E1) scored when they came in charge of a little film called Twilight.  The vampire love stories put them on the map, and the final two installments are certain to make a profitable box office splash over the next two years.  The Canadian distributor Maple Pictures also scored a hot ticket item when they secured domestic distribution rights for the screen versions of The Hunger Games trilogy, with the first film adaptation from the post-apocalyptic series of bestsellers to be released next March.  But Alliance obviously hopes to retain and keep the title of biggest and best homegrown distributor, as they are rumoured to be in final negotiations to buy out Maple.

Warner Bros. struck gold with the Harry Potter films, and they have coasted on them for the last ten years.  Any studio would be jealous of this sort of sustained success.  It wasn’t hard to predict that the final one would break practically every record over opening weekend, and it deserves every cent that it has and will continue to make.  I guess now everyone is just waiting patiently to see what next big project the studio announces, but somehow I doubt they will be able to sustain this sort of magic with another series.

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