Box office records blown away, Potter aims for franchise status

Monday, December 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ When Time Warner closed its merger with America Online in January, hopes were still high that AOL's Internet wizardry would spur the new company ahead of rivals. Now AOL Time Warner Inc. is soaring again, thanks to an older kind of magic: box office riches, courtesy of Harry Potter.

In fact, the young wizard's blowout showing so far is leading some to believe that Potter could become one of the biggest film franchises of all time, up there with ``Star Wars.''

It could hardly come at a better time for AOL Time Warner. Hopes of more supercharged growth at its online division are fading, and its many magazines and cable networks have been clobbered by an advertising slump. The company has been trimming staff and making other cost cuts throughout the year.

And along came Harry. Having plowed through several box office records, ``Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'' has already taken in $220.1 million in its first three weeks since opening Nov. 16, placing it in contention for a spot among the top 10 box office winners if it breaks through $300 million. Many analysts expect it will.

Even as it basks in box office returns, the company is already putting Harry to work in other ways. Walt Disney Co.'s ABC network just paid an estimated $130 million for the rights to broadcast the first two movies. Then there's the future video releases and consumer product marketing.

All told, the Harry Potter franchise could be worth as much as $700 million in profits for each film over the next several years, according to estimates from Salomon Smith Barney analyst Jill Krutick. That would come close to the average of $1.1 billion earned by each of the ``Star Wars'' movies.

Then there's the long term. The next film, ``Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,'' has already begun shooting and is due out next November. Warner Bros. also has the rights to the other two books already in print plus options on the following three, for a possible grand total of seven.

Whether the franchise will last that long is anyone's guess. Any number of things can go wrong, including a box office flop or wearing out the brand with too much exposure. But if all goes well, Gordon Hodge, an analyst at Thomas Weisel Partners, estimates that a full run of the seven films could generate a grand total of $10 billion in revenues over the next seven to 10 years.

Harry Potter may have become a hit the old fashioned Hollywood way, by selling tickets based on a very popular book. But the movie benefited from the marketing muscle of its corporate parent AOL Time Warner, which put out the soundtrack on its Atlantic record label and promoted the film on AOL.

Not every member of the AOL Time Warner corporate family was joining the cheerleading. Time magazine, which feistily rejects suggestions that it favors its parent company, gave the movie a poor review. Time called Harry Potter ``wizardry without magic'' and said it was a ``movie by the numbers.''

Entertainment Weekly, another magazine under AOL Time Warner's Time Inc. publishing arm, didn't pull punches either. ``This long, dense, special-effects-laden movie ... feels as familiar as worn flannel,'' EW said in its review.

Knowing that they have a long franchise ahead of them, Warner Bros. managers have been careful not to overplay the Harry Potter brand. The movie has a single sponsor, Coca-Cola, and fewer than 90 licensing partners, compared to about 200 for big-ticket movies like Batman, Krutick says.

But already concerns are emerging that Harry Potter may be too commercial for its own good. Peter Bart, the influential editor of the Hollywood trade magazine Variety, wrote in a recent column that the movie ``represents the apotheosis of a new genre _ the corporate movie. It wasn't shot, it was manufactured.''