Critics have largely welcomed The Secrets of Dumbledore, the third instalment in the Fantastic Beasts film series. Which is just as well, because the entire future of the Harry Potter universe could rest on how well it performs, both critically and commercially.
Created by author J.K. Rowling as a standalone series specifically for the big screen, Fantastic Beasts was envisaged as a five-film franchise. And things got off to a rosy start, with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) earning $1 billion globally at the cinema and generally enjoying middling to strong reviews.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.Credit:Jaap Buitendijk
But the second film, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018), was a disappointment on all fronts. It became the first film within the Harry Potter universe to receive a “Rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes — from both critics and audiences — and is the worst-performing title within the 10-film Harry Potter cinema universe so far.
Any assessment of that (relative) failure has to consider the possibility of franchise fatigue. After all, the kids who grew up on the Potter books and flocked to see their screen adaptations are now in their mid-30s, possibly with kids of their own. Even if they haven’t outgrown their love of the Potterverse, there’s no guarantee they’ve transferred that affection to the spin-off series.
But some other long-running franchises have enjoyed stellar successes even as Potter’s magic has appeared to be waning. The last three movies in the Star Wars series earned a combined $5.98 billion globally (though the final film, The Rise of Skywalker, was panned by critics and some fans, it still topped $1.34 billion).
The Spider-Man franchise has endured ups and downs since Toby Maguire first felt his spidey senses tingling in 2001, but the most recent addition — No Way Home, with Tom Holland slinging the webs — has racked up a staggering $2.53 billion globally, proving that if you get the formula right, not even a pandemic will keep the fans away.
By contrast, Harry Potter has been unable to maintain that kind of momentum in Australia. The first film, which opened in 2001, took more than $42 million locally. The second, in 2002, took $37 million, the third (2004) just under $34 million. The peak came in 2011, when the final instalment, The Deathly Hallows – Part 2, took $52.65 million in Australia (these figure have not been adjusted for inflation).
The Fantastic Beasts films have taken $32 million and $23 million respectively.
Will the latest film be enough to reignite the passion for diehard Potterheads?
Kate and David van Graas were among the first people in Australia to see The Secrets of Dumbledore when they attended the premiere last Thursday night. But even as self-confessed fans, they admit they are “definitely less interested” in the Fantastic Beasts series.
“Most films where they’re trying to tack onto the success of the original don’t do as well,” said David.
Also at the screening was Erin Davies, who is such a fan of the Potter universe that she has a Nimbus 2000 broomstick hanging on her living-room wall. “The movie was great,” she said after the screening. “I loved it.”
From Rowling to Depp: Harry Potter controversies
It’s possible that at least some of the fading allure of the films has more to do with events off the screen than on. Specifically, a series of controversies involving some of its key creatives.
Rowling may be the fourth highest-grossing story creator of all time at the box office (stories she has created have grossed $10.25 billion) and the author of the best-selling book series of all time, but her image has been significantly tarnished in recent years by her controversial views on the transgender community.
J.K. Rowling attends the Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore world premiere in London.Credit:Getty Images
Comments she has made since 2018, which have been labelled transphobic by many, have led to fansites such as the Leaky Cauldron scrubbing all mention of Rowling’s existence from the record.
Harry Potter stars Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, and Fantastic Beasts star Eddie Redmayne have released statements opposing Rowling’s views, and the author was notably absent from HBO Max’s reunion special last year, appearing only via archival footage.
When the creator of a universe becomes She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, it raises serious questions about whether fans can still cling to childhood comfort. But while fan Erin Davies is disappointed by Rowling’s commentary, she is determined it won’t take away from the series she loves.
“I find it more important just to focus on the magic, and the happiness that the actual story [brought] before all of that came out,” she said.
But Rowling’s comments aren’t the only distraction.
Star Johnny Depp, who played the villain Gellert Grindelwald in the second film, was asked to resign by studio Warner Bros. after he lost his libel case against UK tabloid The Sun over claims he had been violently abusive towards ex-wife Amber Heard (he has been replaced by the Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen).
Even before the verdict, Depp’s casting had been a point of contention, with Rowling releasing a statement addressing the “legitimate questions and concerns about our choice” from fans.
Last week, Warner Bros. discovered bad things come in threes when Ezra Miller, who plays Credence Barebone (and superhero The Flash in the studio’s DC universe), was arrested for disorderly conduct and harassment.
Pandemic delays may have played a part too
Filming on the new Fantastic Beasts film had been due to start in March 2020 with an intended release of November 2021. But then COVID-19 struck and production was rescheduled to September.
When Depp left and Mikkelsen joined in November 2020, Warner Bros. announced it was rescheduling the release for July 2022. Last September, it was pulled forward to April, but that still meant it had been 3½ years between releases.
Mads Mikkelsen replaces Johnny Depp as Gellert GrindelwaldCredit:Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Studios put a lot of thought into release dates, planning marketing strategies around other films’ releases, school holidays and awards seasons. They also hope to maintain and capitalise on a franchise’s momentum.
The question for Fantastic Beasts now, as it contends with Sonic the Hedgehog 2, is if it has left its run too late — and does it risk falling between the gap of being too young for nostalgic Millennials and too old for kids?
Australians are going to the cinema less
There’s one other factor we need to consider here: Australians are going to the cinema less than they were when this franchise started.
According to data from Screen Australia and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, we went to the cinema an average of 4.7 times a year in 2001. There were also fewer films competing for our attention at that time.
By 2019, we were going 3.3 times a year. And in 2021 — the second annus horribilis in a row for cinemas — we were going just 1.5 times a year.
But cinema is recovering well; attendances are near to pre-pandemic numbers, and Spider-Man’s $81.12 million domestic box office suggests when you get the magic right, fans will flood to the big screen.
In the final analysis, no one — not even a wizarding great like Dumbledore — really knows how a film will perform until the numbers come in.
Ultimately, the power is in the hands of Potter fans to decide if the magic remains.
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