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Looking into Harry Potter's crystal ball

After the second movie, what's next?

By Todd Leopold

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(CNN) -- It's a question worthy of a cliffhanger in a Harry Potter book: What's going to happen to the boy wizard?

Not in the second movie, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," due for release Friday. That's over and done. (Incidentally, Harry lives.) We're talking in general, when "Chamber" has left the theater.

After all, Harry's not just the hero of a series of children's books. He's also the star of the second-highest grossing movie of all time, the center of a merchandising empire, and the key to the profits of several companies -- including AOL Time Warner, which happens to be the parent of both the Potter-presenting Warner Bros. movie studio and this very news network.

And yet the growing Mr. Potter is in flux. On the movie side, the voice of actor Daniel Radcliffe is changing, and he's showing a budding adolescence. Richard Harris, the man who played his headmaster, is dead. And word is that Radcliffe and the child actors who play his friends are only ticketed for one more movie.

On the book side, his adventures remain at a standstill, known only to the woman who created him, J.K. Rowling. It's not that Rowling has been slacking off. In the past couple years she's married, gotten pregnant, won a lawsuit and avoided a stalker. Yet it's been 2 1/2 years since Potter book IV, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," and there's no word on when book V will be released, or even finished (though Rowling hinted at the "Chamber" premiere that she's almost done writing). And even then, there are two more to go in the planned seven-book series.

Rumbles in Potterland

In the entertainment business, where tearing down is as common as building up, observers are already licking their chops.

Booksellers are noting the ascendancy of Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" books, which are dominating hardcover lists; one Amazon source said "Lemony Snicket is giving J.K. Rowling a run for her money." (Rowling does hold the top three spots on The New York Times' paperback bestseller list.)

Movie critics generally gave "Sorcerer's Stone" favorable reviews, but many disliked Chris Columbus' direction and his emphasis on special effects over character development. The second film, which is supposed to have more special effects than the first, may come in for more criticism.

And then there's that delay between books IV and V, which has prompted some to wonder if the Potter series will be able to maintain the momentum it had back in the summer of 2000, when "Goblet of Fire" created a frenzy comparable to that of the 19th-century throngs greeting the final serialized chapters of Dickens novels coming into New York Harbor.

J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling

Philip Nel, a professor at Kansas State University and the author of "J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter Novels: A Reader's Guide" (Continuum), isn't concerned.

"I think it's safe to say, when the fifth book comes out, we'll have midnight lines [at bookstores] again," he says.

A marketing powerhouse

Seth Siegel also isn't worried. He's a marketing specialist and co-founder and chairman of the licensing division at The Beanstalk Group, a brand licensing and promotional marketing firm. Not only will "Chamber of Secrets" be successful, he says, but the merchandise associated with the film should be even more successful.

"The merchandise is better, smarter, and more focused than last year," he says. "This time they've hit a bulls-eye with what they've come out with."

He says that three of the major Potter licensees -- toy makers Mattel and Lego, and videogame producer Electronic Arts -- have products that should have sharp appeal to target groups, and other licensees can learn from their successes.

Also, Warner Bros. has protected the Potter name, he says. "Usually, what happens [with an 'event film'] is that there tends to be a Katie-bar-the-door approach," says Siegel. "In the case of Potter, it's just the opposite."

Potter toy
Potter merchandise has brought in more than $1 billion.

Warner Bros. has limited the number of licensees to about 80 and licensed products to about 2,000. That may sound like a lot, but other event films can produce more than 10,000 products, Siegel says.

The marketing is so good, Siegel says, the gaps in time between movies and books don't even matter.

"It's best if there's a great book and a great movie in the same year, but it's still a top-of-mind-type product," he says. Potter products have brought in more than $1 billion to date, not including the books or first movie.

Not that the movie won't be a hit, adds Ian Mohr, New York film reporter for The Hollywood Reporter entertainment trade publication.

"Sequels usually don't do as well as their predecessors ... but if 'Chamber of Secrets' even does close to the [opening] of the first film, then it's good for Warner Bros." The first film made $90.3 million its first weekend, one of the biggest opening takes of all time.

'The children have to grow up'

Given that other studios have cleared their decks for "Chamber," it will be the only new movie in most U.S. markets, helping its prospects. The film will almost certainly put Warner Bros. over $1 billion in U.S. box office receipts for the year, Mohr adds.

"Chamber of Secrets" has been part of a Warner strategy as of late to develop franchise films -- films that produce several sequels, such as WB's "Batman" and Paramount's "Star Trek." (This holiday season's WB sequels include "Analyze That" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.") It can be a risky approach, partly because returns diminish with each film, and partly because the first film is practically required to be a blockbuster success. With the Potter series, Mohr says, it helps that the name is known worldwide.

Richard Harris
So far, there has been little public conjecture about who will replace the late Richard Harris in his role as Headmaster Albus Dumbledore -- one of many questions the films will have to deal with.

"International box office is incredibly important for this film as well," he says. The Potter books have been successful all over the world, thus improving the recognition -- and the welcome -- for future films.

But what of those future films? Some of the adult actors are getting on in years; Richard Harris, who played Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, recently passed away (see story), and one wonders if Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman et al. will want to continue in their roles for several more years.

More to the point, the child actors are only signed through three movies. There's been speculation that they won't return for a fourth, particularly since the production schedule has been extended (Potter III, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," doesn't start production until March, with a 2004 opening planned). The assumption is that the kids would be too old (and possibly expensive) and may want to move on to other projects.

That would be a shame, says Nel, since part of the allure of the Rowling series is watching the children turn into adults.

"The children have to grow up. Book IV is really about adolescence, coping with that awkward age," he says.

But when the movies have all been made and the last ticket has been ripped at the box office, the books will still live on, Nel says.

"I think they'll be part of the canon of children's literature, with C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, and A.A. Milne," he says. "Right now, some people see them as merely a marketing phenomenon, and they're criticized for being popular. But I don't think that holds water. ... They're very literary," he continues. "There's a great inventiveness to these books, all those details that make up a world."

For all those naysayers who believe Harry Potter is running out of tricks, Nel just shrugs: "I don't think they can see the forest for the trees."

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