Even before people line up this week to see Voldemort get his just desserts, the collected take on the Harry Potter films has been estimated at $6.34 billion. As far back as 2007, Warner Brothers boasted that the Potter series had surpassed the box office of two rival blue-chip franchises, the James Bond series and the Star Wars films.
It’ll be a disruption for the studio to see the annuity go dry. Where are they ever going to find something this big again? Their plan is for ever-more superhero wrangling. But how can Batman and Superman draw the female audiences like Harry Potter did?
The Potter films used the new media—the internet leak and the suddenly announced midnight preview—as well as the tremendous rise in the quality of digital effects. Gilded like Big Ben in the first two films, these effects eventually looked rubbed with soot like a commando’s face. Wands that glowed like Tinkerbell at the start of the decade ended up blazing like pistol shots at its dusk. And still one could watch the history of the last troubled decade reflected in the films.
What made the Harry Potter films such a success? Like the two other rivals mentioned before, Potter was produced by a small production company, Heyday Films, just like Bond‘s Eon and Star Wars‘ Lucasfilm; the smallness helped Potter avoid mood-destroying reboots and reimaginations.
Second, it was the films’ political flexibility. The left happily claimed the films, identifying Dick Cheney with Voldemort, yet these films celebrated the exclusivity and legacy admissions of the British boarding school. Third, it was the lead trio of actors, who grew better as the series went on. Rupert Grint, the standout, went from tiresome ginger-joke to suave, scruffy leading man. And finally, the success was due to the quality of the series’ turning point, Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004).
This third film was the least financially popular of the series. (Yes, a film can earn $795 million and still be considered an underperformer.) But even David Yates, who directed the last four Potter films, says Cuaron’s was the best of them all.
Cuaron’s darkling adaptation shifted the emphasis from kid fantasies to all-ages entertainment. When I interviewed Cuaron in 2007, he explained how he got the texture: “We hadn’t seen all of Hogwarts except in bits and pieces, and there were feelings you were watching a set. We tried to make Hogwarts a character.”
Maybe Hogwarts itself was the main attraction, then. Yes, there was a hereditary hero, born to the purple robes, but he’d have been lost without the old school. British or foreign, young or old, rich as Malfoy or poor as the Weasleys, magical or plain mortal, all were in Hogwarts together.