LOS ANGELES — Warner Bros. Pictures is about to lose a major rainmaker, so it’s going to let him linger a little longer before letting him go.
That rainmaker, of course, is Warner’s hugely profitable “Harry Potter” franchise. And by the time the box-office runs dry on “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I” after its release this holiday season, the wizard of Hogwarts will have raked in more than $6 billion for Warner and its parent, Time Warner Inc. through seven films.
But when “Deathly Hallows: Part I” debuts Nov. 19 — almost nine years to the day that the first installment, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was released — it will be the last time the “Potter” series plops down in the middle of the holiday season and force the rest of Hollywood to plan their holiday films around it.
The question is, who will fill the void?
“It opens an opportunity. I don’t know who jumps in there,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office for the website Hollywood.com. “We have to see. Sometimes these things just happen organically.”
Consider that the first six installments made a cumulative $5.4 billion, or $900 million apiece in worldwide receipts. That makes the $6 billion threshold easily within range.
It’s also possible that when Part II of that final “Potter” installment hits theaters in July, the franchise could pile on to that haul enough to make it $7 billion in eight films, plus countless more sales in home video and untold ancillary revenue from product tie-ins.
But that will be it for what will end up being a film series that spanned nearly 10 years and lifted the fortunes of Warner Bros. to a level that may be impossible to reach again.
It’s no wonder that Warner is stretching out the series of seven books to eight films. Company officials make no pretensions about trying to give at least a little more life to the series before bidding it farewell; that’s another $900 million in potential receipts left on the table, they say privately.
With many film series, each successive movie often ends up making less than the first. “Potter” went through the inevitable decline after “Sorcerer’s Stone” — still the highest-grossing installment in the series — but got over it after the third movie, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” which still made $796 million
Sales started climbing again and the last two films, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” grossed $938 million and $934 million, respectively.
Brandon Gray, president of box-office tracker BoxOfficeMojo.com says that splitting one book into two parts in a blatant effort to rake in more money could backfire.
“It doesn’t work too often but it may be that ‘Harry Potter’ is a unique phenomenon,” Gray said. “It’s incredible how strong this franchise is, six movies in.”
The film industry will need every ounce of that success, and a few other hits, if it hopes to continue on a growth path for box-office receipts this holiday season, which began last weekend.
Thanks to a near-record increase in average ticket prices of 35 cents for 2010, the cumulative domestic gross since the beginning of the year is just under $8.8 billion, a rise of 3.3 percent from last year. But attendance is down nearly 2 percent.
A more troubling trend has been developing since Labor Day, as a dearth of popular releases has left the fall season well behind the same period last year in both receipts and attendance. From Labor Day to Halloween, box-office is down 5.4 percent and ticket sales are off by more than 10 percent when compared with the same period last year.
What’s more, the industry faces tough comparisons during this holiday season — which runs through Dec. 31 — with the same time frame last year when all-time box-office king “Avatar” was in theaters. That movie made $2.8 billion alone worldwide. It was released by Twentieth-Century Fox (a unit of News Corp., also the parent of MarketWatch).
It also doesn’t seem as if there are any surefire blockbusters out there other than “Potter.”
“I don’t see any blockbusters coming out, but I look forward to being surprised,” said Gray. “It’s not predetermined as it normally is.”
After a string of horror releases and other R-rated fare, the holiday season kicked off with the first PG animated film in some time, DreamWorks Animation’s “Megamind” last weekend.
This weekend, two thrillers go head to head, Fox’s “Unstoppable” and “Skyline” from Universal Studios, a unit of General Electric Co.
“Potter” is the following weekend, and after that, Walt Disney Co. will trot out its animated offering of the season, “Tangled,” a rendering of the Rapunzel story. It debuts the day before Thanksgiving, Nov. 24.
“Potter” and “Tangled” are likely to remain at the top of the heap, soaking up more box-office dollars into the first weekend of December, but on Dec. 10, another franchise will try to revive its fortunes.
“The Chronicles of Narnia” was considered a rousing success when the first in the series “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” hit screens in 2005 and made $739 million worldwide. But the 2008 follow-up, “Prince Caspian” had a more subdued response with $419 million, still high.
So Disney, which then controlled the franchise, dropped it and Fox picked it up with this latest installment, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”
Hollywood.com’s Dergarabedian says that “Prince Caspian” may have suffered by being released at a different time of year, in May, than the holiday release of “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” in December 2005. The religious themes of the series may have been better served by a Christmas-time release.
“I think they’ll have better luck this year by having it in the holiday timeframe,” he said.
Disney, instead, is resting its fortunes on “Tron: Legacy” a sequel based on the 1982 cult favorite “Tron.” Its release will set a new record for the time gap between original and sequel of 28 years, beating the 25 years between 1961’s “The Hustler” and 1986’s “The Color of Money.”
Disney has high hopes for reviving the 3-D film, but the original was never a massive hit, making $33 million domestically — a pedestrian $72 million in today’s dollars.
“Hopes are high for ‘Tron: Legacy’ but the legacy of ‘Tron’ suggests otherwise,” said BoxOfficeMojo’s Gray.