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by Gabriel Chong | 16 November 2010

Everything that has a beginning has an end. And over the next six months, audiences worldwide will have to bid farewell to easily the most definitive film franchise of the decade.

Part one of the epic finale “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” is scheduled to open in Singapore cinemas Nov. 17 (two days before its release in the US) and part two will open later next summer. Both films are the culmination of a series that will encompass eight films over the past ten years by the time it is over.

No series has quite delivered the same output and enjoyed an ever-burgeoning fanbase with each movie. Indeed, each Harry Potter film has been a movie event to look forward to, and the numbers will show nothing less. The six movies to date have grossed US$5.7 billion worldwide, with another US$1.3 billion in home video sales.

Add to that US$7 billion worth in retail products sold, a recently opened “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” theme park in Orlando, plans for a permanent exhibit at Leavensden Studios London (the studio home of the franchise), and there’s really little doubt that Potter’s mark on pop culture is indeed a worldwide phenomenon.

Making History

The success of Harry Potter is unlike any literary franchise. The first movie “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” arrived in 2001, right smack when the books were swiftly gaining fans all around the world. Author J.K. Rowling had just published the fourth book “Harry Potter and the Goblet’s Fire” a year ago, and announced plans for a fifth book. By then, the launch of the books were itself an eagerly anticipated event among fans, who would queue up in front of bookstores at midnight just to be the first to get their hands on the books.

Because the series was yet-completed when the first film came out, Warner Bros was quite unprepared for the size of the film franchise they had landed. Producer David Heyman was the first to chance upon the book in late 1997 after a curious secretary in his office took it home and raved about it. Heyman’s interest was piqued and he sent it to his friend and then-production executive at Warner Bros, Lionel Wigram.

Warner Bros. secured the rights for the first four books for about US$2 mil, a pittance if you consider how much collectively the four films would earn. Still, Rowling’s ambivalence lay not in the amount the movie rights had been sold for; rather, she was worried that the movies would rob readers of the way they had used their imaginations to fill in the Potter universe.

“She expressed some ambivalence, even regret at having sold the motion picture rights,” Alan Horn, president of Warner Bros. said. “I made a little secret pledge in my mind to Ms. Rowling —and I had never met her at the time — that just as the books represented the very finest in literary quality and created this phenomenal classic, my job is to have you be proud of the cinematic interpretation of those works.”

“I completely identified with her fears: ‘Oh no, what are these movie people going to do?’ And we discussed a lot of alternative ways to do this but the common thread was that whatever Hogwarts looked like, it would be of the highest-quality production … with the very best people we could find on the planet and we would consult with her every step of the way.”

Horn first offered Steven Spielberg the opportunity to direct the films, but Steven’s idea was to ‘combine a couple of the books, let’s make it animated’. Luckily for fans, Horn wanted to make the films live-action and the directing job fell to Home Alone’s Chris Columbus. Columbus worked on the first two movies, which dwelt largely with Harry’s coming-to-terms of his destiny as The Boy Who Lived and his inevitable showdown with the Dark Lord who would return.

Continuing the Legacy

When Columbus declined to return for the third film (staying on instead as producer), Heyman approached Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron to take over the reins. Unlike “Philosopher’s Stone” and “Chamber of Secrets”, this third movie- like the book- would be darker and more complex, so Cuaron- whose resume included “A Little Princess” and the critically acclaimed “Y Tu Mama También”- seemed a suitable choice as director.

When asked what he thought as he was approached to do the film, Cuaron said: “I was a little surprised at the beginning, a little suspicious about the whole thing. I knew that there was a movie and the huge success of Harry Potter but I never read the books and I hadn’t seen the films. So when I read the script, immediately I wanted to read the book and when I read the book, I said I had to do this movie. It’s just the material. The material is so great.”

Cuaron’s approach turned out to be divisive- critics loved the film, calling it the most artistic of the series and lauding it as the best of all of the films. Fans however were disappointed with the liberties he took, and called it the worst of the lot. The studio didn’t want to delay the process of making the films, so when Cuaron was unable to return as quickly as they would like to for “The Goblet of Fire”, Warner Bros. approached Mike Newell to take over.

Newell delivered an action-packed spectacle that was closest to populist entertainment. Fans and neophytes alike were enthralled by the perfect blend of action and special effects in recreating the Triwizard Cup’s tournaments. But Newell declined to return for the fifth film, and the job next fell to British director David Yates, best known for his work on the acclaimed “State of Play” miniseries.

It was Yates’ biggest project to date but he delivered handsomely. “The Order of the Phoenix” was well-received by both fans and critics alike and Heyman then selected Yates to continue work on the sixth movie, “The Half-Blood Prince”. Scheduled for release in fall 2009, release of the film was abruptly postponed for eight months, with speculation that reshoots were ordered after fans disliked the original cut.

In the end, fan reaction was just as harsh, criticising Yates for cutting out key scenes in the book, especially the climactic battle that would lead to the dramatic passing of Professor Albus Dumbledore. Critics however continued to lavish praise on Yates’ dark and moody style and Warner Bros. decided to offer Yates the opportunity to direct the seventh instalment.

Heyman says of the decision to split “The Deathly Hallows” into two separate movies: “When the idea was initially mooted, I was, to put it mildly, uncertain. But as screenwriter Steve Kloves began to break the book down, it became clear that there was no way to tell this story in one film and to have the film make sense and do the book any justice.”

Yates says that the two films that make up “The Deathly Hallows” will feel like two very different films. “We’re taking these three characters and pulling them away from the comfort zone of Hogwarts, and you can’t underestimate the power of that. It’s like they’re being thrown out into the grown-up world for the very first time, with all its jeopardy and all its dangers.”

Already, Rowling has called “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 1” her “favourite so far”. At the world premiere, Heyman praised Yates for doing “the most incredible job with these films”. Critics have also continued their praise of the film, though fan reaction remains to be seen as the movie opens worldwide this week.

Lessons Learnt

As Hollywood looks back at this historic franchise, it will be with admiration and emulation. Former Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook, who was behind Disney’s own “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, says that “Harry Potter” has been a breed apart.

“It has unequivocally been the best-managed franchise that we’ve ever seen, top to bottom,” he said. “The movies have been terrific and Warner Bros. managed to position each one as a worldwide event. Each movie has been unique and built on the last one and the anticipation has never been better. They’ve honored the source material and done everything right.”

Lauded too is the ability of Heyman to keep the cast of the films intact for a decade, allowing audiences to develop an affinity with not just the characters- Harry Potter, Hermoine Granger and Ron Weasley- but also their actors- Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint- as they watch these stars grow up right before our eyes.

Having just one screenwriter, Steve Kloves, pen the screenplays for all the movies (except the fifth one which Michael Goldenberg did) also provided consistency in the tone and feel of the movies- though Rowling does vet all the scripts, stepping in when she feels that Kloves was veering off-course.

All these ‘rights’ have contributed to the enduring and resounding success of Harry Potter. As Warner Bros. executive vice president for brand management Diane Nelson puts it, “the approach to ‘Harry Potter’ and to Jo Rowling is the approach that is a template for how we move forward and, to the credit of Alan Horn, it’s a template for other studios too.”

opens 17 November 2010

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