Potter Synergy

February 01, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

If you're a Harry Potter fan, it doesn't get better than July. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but it can't be a coincidence that the last Harry Potter novel (oddly titled Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) arrives in bookstores a week after Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix hits movie screens. Cross-promotion is nothing new, but this is the most egregious instance of it I can remember.

How many people, I wonder, will watch the fifth movie then read the sixth and seventh books? I admit I'll probably be one of them. I like to think of myself as a patient person, but the idea that there will actually be a completed multi-book fantasy series out there to read is almost too tempting to resist. Of course, I'll have to wait for my wife to get done with the new book. Harry Potter is her thing. She was practically jumping for joy this morning upon learning she only had to wait five months. (Many people had projected it wouldn't come out until next year.)

This year, Harry Potter will give us a movie, a book, lunch boxes, video games, figurines, Christmas ornaments, soundtrack albums, DVDs, clothing, Halloween costumes, etc. While there's money to be made from book receipts and ticket sales, the real revenue comes from ancillary sources. Similar worlds of paraphernalia will explode around Shrek, Spider Man and Cap'n Jack Sparrow. Box office grosses never tell the whole story. This is why no one will ever know how much The Lord of the Rings really made for New Line Cinema.

George Lucas is the guy who figured this out (with a little help from Walt Disney). When he sold Star Wars to 20th Century Fox, he negotiated the merchandising rights, and that's what made him rich. He didn't get much for the movie, but Star Wars made money for him hand-over-fist. He became wealthy enough that he was able to make the other five movies without studio interference and retain the rights. (As part of his distribution deal with Fox for the prequels, he was given back Star Wars.)

As an ten-year old in the summer of 1978 (a year after Star Wars' release), I had trading cards, comic books, novelizations, fan club magazines, posters, sheets, towels, toys, record albums (the soundtrack and something called "The Story of Star Wars"), and other things I'm forgetting. I had seen the movie three times, having spent a grand total of about $10 on movie tickets. I owned well over $100 worth of Star Wars related stuff. It doesn't take an accounting genius to figure out where the money was, and where it continues to be.

It's probably fair to say that Harry Potter is to the kids of the '90s what Star Wars was to kids of the '70s. Children in grade school when the first Harry Potter book was published will be in college when the last one hits the shelves. At 12:01 am on July 21, bookstore lines will be populated by people of all ages. Like Star Wars, Harry Potter has broken through age and gender barriers. Fifteen years ago, fantasy was the realm of teenage male geeks. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone changed that. Taken in concert with Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings pictures, the Harry Potter franchise (books and movies) enabled fantasy to achieve a level of mainstream acceptance the genre had never previously enjoyed. How likely is it that George R.R. Martin's The Song of Fire and Ice would get an HBO television series without the success of Harry Potter and LOTR?

More reading will be done by children, teens, and young adults during the days after July 21 than at any other time during this year. In the end, even if the conclusion is optimistic, there will be tears. If J.K. Rowling is to be believed, this will be it for Harry Potter. Assuming she means this, she has my admiration. She planned out a seven book series from the beginning and stuck to it. She did not drag things out to milk the characters' popularity and she is not planning a pointless sequel series to pad her coffers. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here. For any author, characters may come and go, but the need to put pen to paper never vanishes.