Any Muggle who scoffed at the fuss surrounding Warner Bros.’ decision to cast 11 year old British actor Daniel Radcliffe as the lead in ”Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” should consider the dark magic of movie profit making. The first ”Potter” movie, based on the J.K. Rowling best-seller and slated for November 2001 release, will be a key building block in a merchandising empire whose potential treasure outdoes even the highest grossing children’s films of all time.
According to industry analysts, the ”Potter” empire’s success hinges in large part on the all British cast, which includes three unknown child actors in the leads. ”With Disney franchises like ‘The Lion King,’ you’re dealing with at least $3 billion,” says media analyst Tom Wolzien of Sanford Bernstein, a consulting firm. ”Here you have something that’s already a well known property. If Warner can be true to the books, then the popularity will continue. It all depends on execution.”
Few doubt that the first movie — with a reported $100 million budget — will generate hefty profits; some analysts say ”Sorcerer’s Stone” could pull in $1 billion, and possibly much more with merchandising included. Though the terms of the deal have not been disclosed, Warner secured the film rights to ”Potter” in 1998, before it became a worldwide publishing phenomenon, and most industry watchers believe the movie studio probably got a bargain. ”They’ve basically got the first one for free,” says Wolzien. ”Every kid who ever read this book is going to want to see the first movie. It’s a question of how big is big.”
Experts, readers, and critics agree, however, that it won’t be easy for director Christopher Columbus to bring to life Harry and his wizard pals Hermione Granger (played by newcomer Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (newcomer Rupert Grint). The details of Rowling’s universe have resided in the imaginations of tens of millions of ardent fans since the books first hit British best-seller lists in 1997, points out Ann Neely, an expert in children’s literature and education at Vanderbilt University. ”I think children will be very adamant about the images they’ve been carrying around for a few years. They are bound to disagree about what they end up looking like on the screen.”
What’s at stake is the rest of the ”Potter” franchise, which includes the option to film all seven of the planned novels (deals have already closed on the first two), as well as licensing and merchandising rights to tie-in products — everything from action figures to gift wrap to Band Aids, which will appear on shelves over the next 18 months. (Wolzien says Warner’s take for the entire enterprise could be as much as $10 billion.) If ”Potter”’s readers like the film, sales of these items will skyrocket and the sequels will have a good chance at success, says Wolzien. ”It’s very squishy. But if the first one’s good, you get everything else.”