November 4, 2001
Coming Soon: Harry Potter and Hollywood's Cash Cow
By RICK LYMAN
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 3 — Harry Potter has overcome a three-headed dog, giant spiders and the evil Lord Voldemort. But now he may finally have met his match: Warner Brothers.
As Warner Brothers prepares for the release of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" at more than 3,500 North American theaters on Nov. 16, it is tightly controlling and protecting his image — not allowing him to drink soft drinks, for example — as it walks a tightrope in the marketing of the movie and of the wizard himself.
On the one hand, the company wants to draw as much profit as possible from J. K. Rowling's mega-best-selling stories and lay down a franchise for future movies and products that will feed corporate coffers for a decade. But on the other, it worries about tainting the golden glow that surrounds the floppy-haired little wizard with too much hype and commercialism, alienating his fanatical fans.
"We want to maximize this franchise in every way," said Alan Horn, the chairman of Warner Brothers, "and that means we need also to make sure than the children and parents who love the stories do not feel that we have blown it."
Even for a corporation as big and diversified as AOL Time Warner, the studio's parent conglomerate, Harry Potter is a big deal. It took two years and $120 million to bring the movie to life, but billions of dollars are lying tantalizingly on the horizon.
"The danger is that if there is too much merchandising, parents might start to get somewhat cynical and say, `Gee, look at them overcommercializing it,' " said Marty Brochstein, executive editor of the Licensing Letter, a publication for the licensing industry. "That's the tightrope that everyone is walking here."
Adults are apt to be especially wary of overcommercializing in Harry's case because the first Potter books seemed so notably free of it. Astonished and delighted parents found that their children — those avatars of the video generation — actually lined up at bookstores across the country. The four books in print have sold some 116 million copies in 200 countries and 47 languages.
In recent interviews, Warner Brothers executives explained the steps the corporation has taken to make sure its fledgling franchise makes it to the end of the tightrope without falling.
"It started, really, back in January of 2000, when we kicked into planning for our consumer product line," said Diane Nelson, the studio's senior vice president for family entertainment, who is coordinating the arrival of the movie and its attendant products. "We developed a series of rules, our guiding principles."
The first guideline, she said, and the central one, was "less is more." In other words, don't kill the goose by overhyping its golden egg. Don't give parents or children any reason to loosen their embrace on the series.
At the same time, the executives did not want to homogenize away the qualities that made the series beloved. "Harry and his friends are flawed and imperfect," one guideline says. "Don't sugarcoat them."
Yet another guideline, and one that had a major effect on the merchandising campaigns, was, "Take people into Harry's world, don't put Harry into our world."
In other words, Ms. Nelson said, none of the advertising campaigns will include images of Harry eating or drinking a specific product, or walking up to a fast-food counter. Nor will there be people dressed up in giant Harry Potter costumes at theme parks or shopping malls.
Coca-Cola is a case in point. Major event movies often have three or more global licensing partners. In this case, Warner Brothers decided to go with only Coke, and it placed several conditions on the company.
"We asked them not to put the kids or any of their faces on the cans and not to feature shots of Harry drinking the soda," Ms. Nelson said. "And we also asked them to include a philanthropic component; there's this huge literacy program that's part of the Coke campaign. We think this goes to the spirit of what is inherent in the Harry Potter brand. None of this is bad for Coca-Cola, either, by the way. But we really feel that the intention is about as altruistic as one gets in a corporate environment."
The studio was also more restrained than it has been with previous franchise properties about the number of licensees and the volume of products that will flood the market, executives said. For the "Batman" movie series, the studio had about 150 licensees. For Harry Potter, there are 85, including licensees for the movies and the book series.
Dawn Taubin, the studio's senior vice president for theatrical marketing, said the movie's publicity campaign was also mounted under the "less is more" precept. Central to the strategy was an effort to duplicate the gradual buildup of fan anticipation that greeted each of the books.
Thus far, for the studio, the indications are good. Advance ticket sales have been at record-breaking levels at moviefone.com and fandango.com, and several cinema chains intend to allow early ticket purchases to forestall the camping out at ticket booths that has greeted the openings of other blockbusters.
The first wave of movie merchandise is in the stores, and some of it — a 682-piece Lego version of the Hogwarts Castle ($89.99), for instance — is flying off the shelves as fast as a Quidditch snitch. There has also been some prominent magazine coverage, as with any film, including a Vanity Fair spread in September and special issues of Premiere and TV Guide with four different covers.
"Our expectations for this film are quite big," said Jill S. Krutick, an entertainment analyst for Salomon Smith Barney. "At the minimum, we're looking for domestic box office in the $250- to $300-million range, and the global appeal is way up there, too. The company has been very careful not to overpromote it and run the risk of overexposure. And while they have carefully managed the license so as not to overproduce too many products, we still expect merchandising sales to be in the $100- to $150-million range."
And that, of course, is just the beginning. A second film, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," goes into production three days after the first film's release, with the same cast, director (Chris Columbus) and writer (Steven Kloves), and is tentatively set for release just before Thanksgiving next year. Sometime before then, the video and DVD of the first film will come out.
When Ms. Rowling unveils the fifth book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," which has no set release date, Warner hopes its Potter merchandise will show further bursts of profitability. In the meantime, Mr. Kloves has begun writing the third film, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," which may be in theaters as early as Thanksgiving 2003.
"From a movie standpoint, it's going to be one of the biggest," Jessica Rief-Cohen, a media analyst for Merrill Lynch, said of the Harry Potter franchise. "The anticipation is as high as we've ever seen for any movie. If they do it right, it could be a franchise bigger than a `Batman' or a `Star Wars.' It really has the potential to be a phenomenon over a long period of time."
The "less is more" campaign was carefully followed, although this might not be readily obvious to parents trying to drag their children away from stores heaped with Harry socks and other paraphernalia. When the three young British actors were chosen to play the lead roles, they were presented at one news conference and then removed from sight. There were no visitors allowed on the set, no behind-the-scenes stories.
"We really took a quieter approach, because that was part of the strategy," Ms. Taubin said.
Initially last year, Warner Brothers developed a set of marketing images and typefaces built around the books. The images were all illustrations based on the book design, and there were no photographs from the films. This marketing scheme was used on licensed products beginning with the back-to-school line in 2000.
At the same time, a second set of images and typefaces — this time tied to the film, were developed and allowed to dribble out to the public only at carefully chosen moments. The first appearance came in last year's holiday season in a movie theater lobby poster, known as a one- sheet. It showed a white owl delivering a piece of parchment bearing the name Harry Potter. The typeface was different from the book campaign, and the image of the owl was photographic.
The first trailer hit theaters in March. "It was a straight teaser," Ms. Taubin said. "No dialogue, just images, basically an introduction to what the movie was going to look like." A second, meatier trailer was put in theaters in June, including some dialogue scenes. At the same time, a billboard campaign began with a shot of the wizard-students arriving by boat at a moonlit Hogwarts. "This was intended to announce that we're coming and it's going to be a big event movie," Ms. Taubin said.
The final trailer, which began playing Friday, is similar to the second one, though it includes more of the special-effects sequences that have only recently been completed.
A worldwide press junket and premiere screening of the film was set for this weekend in London, though it was to be a relatively low-key event, with no huge after-party, for instance. "The actors have been fairly invisible during filming," Ms. Taubin said. "You haven't seen them on talk shows, for instance. So this junket will be the first time that the press will have had access to the cast, especially the kids."
After that, it's just two weeks of television and print advertising, and then the film opens.
The studio was also careful to use Ms. Rowling as a resource to satisfy those who view her works as a sacred text.
One example was the lightning bolt on Harry's forehead. On some book covers, the illustrations show it smack in the center of his forehead. But vigilant fans noticed in the preview trailer that the zigzag scar is slightly to one side.
When fans began to complain online that the filmmakers appeared to be taking liberties with the text, Mr. Columbus was able to respond that he had consulted Ms. Rowling and been told that, in her imagination, the bolt was more properly off-center.Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company