Warner Bros.’ Chief on the Harry Potter Magic

(The story has been changed to reflect that Barry Meyer did not have direct approval in acquiring initial movie rights to the Potter franchise.)

Warner Bros. Entertainment acquired the movie rights to J.K. Rowling’s first two books about young wizards for a reported $2 million in 1998, before the first book had even been published in the U.S. Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer speaks with reporter Diane Brady about his studio’s 10-year, 8-movie, $7 billion run.

Making a big movie about a British schoolboy didn’t seem like a slam-dunk. At first, it was just another project. When it was published here [in the U.S.], Scholastic changed the name from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone because they felt it wasn’t commercial enough. Once kids started to line up to buy these books, it really got on our radar screen.

We decided to set a pace that had never really been done with a multiple-movie franchise. Jo Rowling had only written a few of the books at that point. We didn’t know if the cast would stay together but we wanted to make it possible for the kids to be in all the movies. You can’t rush it; with each book, the kids get a year older. But you also can’t make Harry Potter when Daniel Radcliffe is 35 years old.

In the movie business, you have a huge capital expenditure and lead time, mixed with subjective decision-making. Some movies don’t work, but if you’ve spent a lot of money you still have to see it through. We made a movie a few years ago called Speed Racer. It missed the audience completely. Sometimes, you try to fix the movie and market it more. Sometimes, it’s about cutting your losses and marketing it less, [though] it would be unusual to make a movie that costs more than $80 million and then say, “Sorry. Let’s run a quarter-page newspaper ad, and we’re done.” You have to go with what you’ve got.

By the time we went into production with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, this was expected to be a licensing bonanza. Every single thing that wasn’t nailed down was to have Harry Potter’s picture on it: underwear, bed sheets, towels. One licensee was interested in doing a Harry Potter potty. That was an easy one to refuse. But the other things seemed quite lucrative. Jo thought it was too much, and told us we were going too downscale. She wasn’t comfortable. She had a lot of creative control and was asking us to leave a lot of money on the table. But we significantly pulled back, and she was right.

When you do this kind of movie, you’re always sensitive to the fan base. Everyone has their own vision of Hogwarts until we present it on film, so it had better be good. We got thousands of letters in the first movie because we made a mistake about where we put the scar on Harry’s head. With Harry Potter, you can get the audience. The key is to deliver.

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