The Harry Potter franchise is strong enough to turn movies into blockbusters, even without its titular character.
“It’s the most anticipated fall movie,” Erik Davis, managing editor at Fandango, which sells movie tickets, told CNBC.
The success of this new venture won’t just be measured by box office sales. While the “Fantastic Beasts” series is expected to generate billions of dollars over the course of its multi-year run, the true test for Warner Bros. comes in the form of fan engagement.
It is not enough for these films to be good, they have to inspire fans to buy the merchandise, attend the amusement parks and see the movies multiple times.
Fans of Harry Potter have not been shy about rewarding companies that create new content for them to devour — theme parks, tours and merchandise to showcase their love of the franchise. Yet while the returns on “Fantastic Beasts” have been good so far, they don’t quite measure up to the performance of the movies in the first Harry Potter series.
Two years ago, moviegoers worldwide shelled out more than $814 million to see “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the first film in the series — and that’s not counting the $58 million spent on DVD and Blu-ray copies of the film.
The final film in the original series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” alone garnered more than $1.3 billion at the box office in 2011.
But even with those somewhat unfavorable comparisons, Time Warner, which was recently purchased by AT&T, is still getting great returns compared to its initial investment. Warner Bros. bought the film rights to the first four Harry Potter books in 1999 for about $2 million. The entire film series, which ended up being eight movies instead of seven, grossed more than $7.7 billion at the global box office, not including DVD sales.
Same magical world, different story
Using the same whimsical and expansive universe of the Harry Potter series, the studio has planned a five-part “Fantastic Beasts” film series, which features familiar characters and story lines that were only briefly mentioned in the original books.
“Crimes of Grindelwald” promises to provide more details about existing characters from the Harry Potter series as well as unearth secrets about the wizarding world that were previously unknown. And that alone is enough to lure in even the most casual of Harry Potter fans.
Moviegoers will get a glimpse of a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), seen previously as a stoic, long-bearded mentor to Harry Potter (previously played by Richard Harris and Michael Gambon), as well as the origins of villain Lord Voldemort’s pet snake Nagini (Claudia Kim), who, it turns out, is more than just a snake.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist or wizard zoologist, remains as the lens through which we see this world, as he is caught up in the rivalry between Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), an extremist wizard who seeks to rule over people who do not have magical abilities.
What the critics say
Reviews have begun to trickle in from critics, which paint “Crimes of Grindelwald” as having “glimmers of the magic” from the original Harry Potter films, but not being quite as enchanting as its predecessors.
With less than 40 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, “Crimes of Grindelwald” has a 60 percent approval rating from critics. The lowest of any Harry Potter movie so far. However, it should be noted that not all of the reviews are in. Typically, Rotten Tomatoes gets between 200 and 300 reviews for big blockbuster films, so the approval percentage could change ahead of the film’s release.
For comparison, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” has an approval score of 90 percent and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” scored a 96 percent.
Director Alfonso Cuaron, who went on to win an Oscar for directing “Gravity,” helmed “Prisoner of Azkaban,” while David Yates directed the last four Harry Potter films in the original series. Yates also directed “Fantastic Beasts,” and “Crimes of Grindelwald.” He will direct the remaining three films in this new series.
While there is some skepticism from critics, that doesn’t mean that moviegoers will be deterred.
The first “Fantastic Beasts” received a 74 percent “fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes from critics and a 79 percent rating from audiences. It went on to make more than $800 million at the box office. Although this was the second smallest box office earnings of all nine Harry Potter films that have been released, it proves that moviegoers are still hungry for more Harry Potter content.
Not to mention, Michael O’Sullivan, a reviewer from the Washington Post, has teased that “The Crimes of Grindelwald” has one of the biggest third-act reveals in the whole Harry Potter series.”
So far, a poll of more than 4,000 Rotten Tomato users indicates that 98 percent of audience members want to see the film. Even if “Crimes of Grindelwald” brings in less money than “Fantastic Beasts,” as sequels sometimes do, analysts are still expecting a massive box office payout, especially internationally.
“The brand is so strong overseas,” Shaw Robbins, chief analyst for BoxOffice.com, said.
In fact, “Fantastic Beasts” made 70 percent of its box office revenue from international markets.
The prequel problem
Since the “Fantastic Beasts” movies take place before the original Harry Potter films, they raise the spectre of other blockbuster prequel series, such as Episodes I to III of “Star Wars” and the “Hobbit” trilogy that followed the Oscar-winning “Lord of the Rings” films.
While those prequel series achieved large box office grosses, they are usually considered worse than their classic predecessor movies, despite the stewardship of “Star Wars” creator George Lucas and “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson.
Likewise, the first “Fantastic Beasts” received some criticism for not providing enough callbacks to the original source material. Hard fans of film franchises like Harry Potter can be unforgiving when the official canon of the story is tampered with, so movie studios have to be very careful when producing films like this so they do not alienate their core fan base.
“Crimes of Grindelwald” likely won’t fall victim to that same condemnation. The film brings back familiar characters like Dumbledore, Nagini and a member of the Lestrange family. It will also transport moviegoers to familiar locations like the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Fans went into a frenzy after hearing that young Professor Minerva McGonagall, a favorite character from the books and the original film series, would be appearing in the new movie. (However, purists are wondering how she could be in the movie, which is set in 1927, while lore suggests she was born in 1935.)
Also, Rowling’s direct involvement with the movies gives fans more confidence about her prequels. She was brought on board to write the screenplays for all five films, and she is known for her elaborate planning, having spent five years plotting out the seven book series in the early ’90s.
“There can be a stigma with prequels,” said Robbins. “You don’t have to worry about that with something like this because J.K. has really planned it out.”
Disclosure: CNBC’s parent Comcast owns Fandango and Universal Studios.