The secret to Harry Potter's success

The series expanded Hollywood fantasy by appealing to all ages and both sexes

July 18, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

At a screening in Columbia, a 16-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl emerged from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" blissed-out but also fighting because he wouldn't kiss her during the movie — he didn't want to miss a single second of the action.

Parents with grade-schoolers and high schoolers, groups of college pals and young professionals out on dates blinked at the lobby lights and maybe blinked away some tears.

The scene was being repeated in theaters nationwide, as the final Harry Potter movie rolled out its final chapter this weekend — and audiences responded with explosions of bittersweet emotion and record ticket sales. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," started with the biggest opening day and ended up with the highest-grossing opening weekend of all time, with an estimated $168 million in ticket sales.

For 10 years, the "Potter" films have pulled boys and girls, jocks and geeks and gleeks, tweens and college kids and parents into their big tent. The audience numbers from this weekend's opening reflected that wide appeal: 54 percent were female and 46 percent were male.

They've turned "Harry Potter" into the top-grossing film brand of all time. The first seven films have taken in $6.4 billion worldwide. The Senator sold out its Thursday midnight show two weeks in advance (it also sold out Friday night), and the Rotunda consistently filled two of its three theaters during the weekend.

Hollywood executives — not just at Potter's home studio, Warner Bros., but at its competitors — hope that "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" will expand on the boy-centric smash of "Transformers; Dark of the Moon." They want it to increase traffic at megaplexes around the world and redeem yet another disappointing year at the box office.

But they also fear that they may never see its like again. Each new series gets weighed against "Potter" — whether a comic-book spin-off like "Green Lantern" or a young-adult adventure like "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" — and so far, each has fallen short. They haven't matched this series' ability to intrigue people of all ages and both sexes.

The movie's ultra-wide appeal doesn't surprise Steve Kloves, who wrote all the Potter films except "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

Kloves said that the series "has provided a common watering hole for the imaginations of many different kinds of people, whether it be jock and nerd or more profound cultural demarcations. Potter has had, for some time, a remarkable 'open door' policy. A kind of Ellis Island of readers [and filmgoers] eager for the adventure the story promises."

Fans of Rowling's work agree that what's critical to the success of both the books and the films is the way it hits home to boys and girls equally and simultaneously.

Lisa Cody manages the Children's Bookstore in Roland Park and championed Rowling's books from the start. Rowling made it one of her rare independent-bookstore stops during her 1999 American tour.

"On a bigger level, [the Harry Potter saga] isn't just a mystery and it isn't just a fairy tale," Cody said. "It's a story about friendship and good triumphing over evil. That's something all children have in common: it's comforting to them — and to adults, too."

Making her main character a boy was a key decision for Rowling, said Selma Levi, head of the Enoch Pratt Central Library's Children's Department.

"Girls are much more willing to go along with reading about boys," Levy said. "Rowling made a boy her main character, and then provided a girl character, Hermione, who is just as deft — or more so — than Harry. So she struck a chord with boys and made girls feel, 'Yay, we've got Hermione!' "

Most important, Rowling made Harry a real boy, sensitive but also scrappy and competitive. Levi said that a typical boy who's not an especially devoted reader "will pick up a non-fiction book about sports, for example, and usually something short. But kids who otherwise only wanted to read sports books would read Harry Potter."

When Levi's own son was 10 she threw him a Harry Potter party, complete with her own versions of Quidditch and butterbeer. He's now 20, but he recently told her, "Mom, I will see the last movie with you."

Hollywood has been sniffing around untapped fantasy series like Eoin Colfer's "Artemis Fowl," and Paul Haggis (the writer-director of "Crash") is developing John Flanagan's "The Ranger's Apprentice." The studios hope to find perfect replacements for Rowling's inspired source material. Potter fans may not accept these substitutes. Levi cautioned, "both these series are more boy-oriented — both are centered on male characters" — and neither has displayed the cross-generational reach of Rowling.

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