November 19, 2001

'Potter' Movie Sets Box Office Record


LOS ANGELES, Nov. 18 The fledgling wizard with the zigzag scar rode his Quidditch broom to the biggest movie opening of all time this weekend as "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" earned an estimated $93.5 million in its first three days, making it all but assured of breaking the $100 million mark Monday afternoon.

The feat was accomplished through a canny marketing campaign that carefully cultivated audience interest in the film the first to be adapted from J. K. Rowling's beloved children's series and then released it in just about every city, town and rural crossroads in North America, nearly one out of four of the available screens.

"There aren't enough adjectives to describe how spectacular this opening weekend for Potter has been," said Paul Dergarabedian, chairman of Exhibitor Relations, a Los Angeles-based company that monitors box office receipts. "It's one of those few times when you don't have to add a lot of qualifiers. It's the biggest opening weekend of all time, bar none."

The film, directly by Chris Columbus from a Steve Kloves script based on the first book in Ms. Rowling's series, smashed the box-office record of "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," which earned $72.1 million in the first three days of its four-day Memorial Day weekend opening in 1997. "Harry Potter" earned more in its first three days than "Lost World" earned over all four of its opening days, and "Potter" did it with a running time of 2 hours 20 minutes and without benefit of a holiday weekend.

"People talk about record breaking, groundbreaking, all that kind of thing, but it's a little difficult to internalize it all," said Alan Horn, president of Warner Brothers, which made the film. "We're just so happy that the people who enjoyed these books showed up to see what we would do with them and that their reaction was to be thrilled."

The success of "Harry Potter" also makes certain that despite worries that movie audiences would stay at home in the wake of Sept. 11, this will be another record- breaking year. If current trends hold, it will be the first year that more than $8 billion was spent at the North American box office, beating last year's record of $7.7 billion. More significant, the year is also expected to reverse a two-year slide in the number of tickets sold, with projects sales of 1.5 billion tickets being slightly ahead of last year's 1.46 billion, Mr. Dergarabedian said.

"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," which drew mixed notices from critics, nevertheless earned top grades in audience exit polls over the weekend. And the audience demographics also bode well for the film's long- term prospects. The audience was about one-third children and one-third parents, with the final third falling into neither category, indicating that the crucial audience of young people from their late teens to their mid-20's was not reluctant to see a film based on a tale for younger readers.

"It's that last third that's ultimately so gratifying," Mr. Horn said. "You can't do a number this big without having them in there, too. We had hoped they would show up, but frankly we weren't sure."

The trend in film releases the last several years has been toward bigger and wider opening weekends, although nothing previously reached the level of "Harry Potter." The movie opened in 3,672 theaters but was playing on multiple screens in so many of them that there were actually 8,200 screens showing the film this weekend, out of 35,000 screens in North America.

"They saturated the market," Mr. Dergarabedian said. "This movie was everywhere."

Many of the recent super-wide film openings have led to steep drops in subsequent weekends as audience demand was quickly sated. Whether the huge opening blast for the Potter film will result in a similar decline or whether it will build into one of the biggest movies of all time, as many are predicting, will be determined over the coming weeks.

"In this case I believe there will be a tremendous desire for repeat viewing," Mr. Horn said. "And we have barometers and yardsticks out there that suggest to us that if a movie is this well received it will be strong enough to give it tremendous legs."

Studio executives also pointed out that "Harry Potter" earned $23 million in its opening in Britain, breaking box-office records in the country in which the books were written, set and initially published. It also had not only the largest one-day North American gross in movie history ($32.9 million on Saturday), but the second-largest (Friday's $31.6 million) and the third-largest (Sunday's estimated $29 million).

Production is already under way on the second film, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," which is set for release next November with the same cast working under Mr. Columbus's direction. And Mr. Kloves is at work on the screenplay for a third film, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," which Warner Brothers hopes to release in November 2003, although Mr. Horn said it might be difficult to keep up the one-film-a-year pace.

Since all the first "Harry Potter" film needs is $6.5 million to break the $100 million barrier the mark of a box-office blockbuster it is almost assured of doing so sometime Monday, making it the fastest film ever to reach that mark.

It took "Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace" five days to reach $100 million two years ago. But that film was playing on about 3,000 fewer screens than "Harry Potter" and had to earn its money with lower, 1999 ticket prices.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company