Harry Potter and Warner Brothers’ Order of Three Cash Cows
It’s been five years since Harry Potter appeared on the big screen to confront Lord Voldemort and cap an eight-film saga that raked in almost $8 billion at the box office worldwide. Last weekend, Warner Bros. successfully resuscitated the beloved fictional universe of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World with a spinoff-prequel that’s given the studio a much needed boost.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them topped the charts in its first weekend, with $74.4 million in ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada. It beat some forecasts and fell short of others, but for the company, it hit the higher end of expectations. It marked Warner Bros.’ biggest opening weekend in some countries, including the U.K., generating $145.5 million from 63 overseas territories, the studio said Monday. Its financial and critical success, scoring largely positive reviews, is a victory for Kevin Tsujihara, chief executive of Warner Bros., and a six-year plan he laid out in 2014.
The new franchise is just one part of his strategy to face down rivals such as Walt Disney Co. With a series of films tied to DC Comics and Lego-based characters and stories, Tsujihara is aiming for a highly profitable triple feature.
The Fantastic Beasts story of Newt Scamander and his magical creatures is the first of a five-movie tale that starts in 1926 and culminates in 1945. Unlike the 2001 release Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone or Batman v. Superman, Beasts is based on brand-new intellectual property, not bestselling novels or comics. Tsujihara took to Twitter to congratulate Rowling, who taught herself to write a screenplay. “We can’t wait for the next four films!” he wrote.
Warner Bros. faces fierce competition from Disney, which is leading the industry with a 24 percent market share, thanks to releases this year from each of its five movie labels. These include hit machines Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm. Warner Bros.’ superhero effort got off to a shaky start this year, with a critical mauling of both Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad.
Unlike Marvel movies like this year’s Captain America: Civil War, none of the DC films have broken the $1 billion mark. The studio has since redoubled its efforts, appointing executives specifically to focus on the DC slate, with greater input from producers such as Ben Affleck to promote next year’s Wonder Woman and Justice League.
“They’re really trying to double down on DC,” said Geetha Ranganathan, a media analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “By no means are they bombs or anything, but the critical reception has been weak.”
Fantastic Beasts is a big bet for Warner. It cost $180 million to make–not including marketing costs–which is more than some of the original Potter movies. The original series had an average profit margin of about 55 percent (when including home video and TV licensing revenue), much more than an ordinary movie’s haul of around 20 percent, said Ranganathan.
“I’m not sure if it’s going to be as much of a cash cow as Harry Potter was,” said Ranganathan. “But it’ll do pretty well.”
In February, Warner Bros. will debut The LEGO Batman Movie, a spinoff of the 2014 hit film. A sequel, The Lego Movie 2, is set for 2019. To be sure, Warner Bros. has enjoyed hits outside these three pillars, with such horror flicks as Lights Out.
Fantastic Beasts, however, is not quite Harry Potter in the same way that DC Comics is not quite Marvel. It doesn’t have Daniel Radcliffe in his titular role as the bespectacled protagonist, or Emma Watson and Rupert Grint as his trusted buddies. The setting isn’t Hogwarts in the present day, but early 20th century New York. Americans don’t even call magic-less folk Muggles–they are the No-Maj. That said, Eddie Redmayne plays an endearingly bashful Scamander as a “magizoologist” with a curious briefcase full of strange creatures, and the film does have plenty of magic of its own that could make it a big success for Warner Bros.
Nevertheless, the Wizarding World will have to deal with Disney’s might soon enough. While the film will benefit from the upcoming holiday weekend in the U.S.—one of the year’s biggest for moviegoing—it will also have to contend with the debut of the Disney animated film Moana, which has won overwhelmingly positive early reviews and is likely to attract hordes of kids and their parents, who might prefer it.