As we weather the final wave of Pottermania for the foreseeable future, it's a good time to take stock of one of the most consistent and most lucrative film franchises of recent years. Warner Brothers' "Harry Potter" movies have been exceptional not only for their success, but for how they have often gone against conventional Hollywood wisdom.
1. Kids are Kids - A key decision in ensuring the longevity of the series was made early on. In the first film, Harry and his friends are eleven-year-olds as they are in the books, and young actors of roughly the same ages were cast to play them. This is why, seven films later, 21-year-old Daniel Radcliffe can still pull off playing 17-year-old Harry. Many other fantasy franchises haven't been so lucky. We've seen the heroes of "The Dark is Rising," "Percy Jackson," "City of Ember," and even "How to Train Your Dragon" aged up, in order to appeal to broader audiences or accommodate older actors. Very few, like the "Narnia" films, have followed the lead of "Harry Potter" and cast real children of the right ages.
2. And Brits are Brits - Have you noticed that there are almost no American actors in the "Harry Potter" series? Movie studios love to Americanize foreign properties and add international stars to their big blockbusters to help them play better to overseas audiences. There were rumors that Harry would be played by an American actor when Steven Spielberg was still being courted to direct the first film. Instead, all the major roles went to kids from the UK, to help preserve the very British character of J.K. Rowling's books. Moreover, the supporting and minor adult roles have been filled out by an impressive roster of British thespians, including Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson, and Kenneth Branagh.
3. Age Appropriate - Compare the first and the last "Harry Potter" films, and you'd never think they were part of the same series. "Harry Potter" grew up with its audience and got a little darker and a little more serious with each installment until the last films were barely hanging on to PG-13 ratings. Other children's franchises tend to value consistency, playing to the same age range over and over again. "Harry Potter" is one of the few that gets weightier and more challenging with each successive film, instead of rehashing the same types of adventures and stories. When changing the tone or the style of a series, most opt to reboot the whole thing, like "Batman" or the upcoming "Spider-Man."
4. Departures from Formula - There are a lot of different series that have played fast and loose with their source mythologies over the years, but you don't see many that started with a very set formula and then completely undermined it in successive films. In "Sorcerer's Stone" and "Chamber of Secrets," Harry started out each year with the beastly Dursleys, then went to Hogwarts, played Quidditch, had an adventure related to the return of Voldemort, then triumphed in the end and went home. Every single piece of this plot structure is gone by film seven, except for a brief cameo by the Dursleys in the beginning. Gone also are little things like striped scarves, school uniforms, and the Hogswart Express.
5. Significant Delays - "Harry Potter" is one of the only franchises I can think of where the studios purposely delayed some of the finished films. The most notable example was "Half-Blood Prince," the sixth film in the series, which was pushed back from a Thanksgiving 2008 release date to summer of 2009, in order to ensure that Warners had a tentpole film that season. The decision was announced in August, creating fan backlash, since the marketing campaign was already in full swing and trailers had been released. However, the box office totals weren't affected in the slightest. The upside, however, was that the last few films have enjoyed longer production times and haven't been rushed to theaters.
6. Play to the Fans - Filmmakers are usually careful to ensure that each film in a franchise has a self-contained story and can be enjoyed independently of the others. If there's a plot detail or character relationship from a prior film that's going to be important, it will be reintroduced. This means new viewers can pick up a series without starting from the beginning. You might see in-jokes or call-backs to an earlier film, but nothing too confusing or difficult for newcomers to follow. The latest installments of "Harry Potter," however, not only assume that you've seen the previous ones and know all the important details already, but you're better off having read the books too if you want to keep up.
7. Designed to End - Who knows if Warner Brothers will push for sequels, prequels, or spinoffs in the future, but they should remember that a big reason why "Harry Potter" never lost momentum over eight movies was that the series was one big story. Every film was building up to the confrontation between Harry and Voldemort in the final chapter, and all the fans knew it was coming. Most franchises do not have the foresight or the source material to set something like this up, especially over so many movies. The upcoming final film is special because we know it's the last one. J.K. Rowling wrote no more books and the young actors have grown up and are ready to take on other roles.
8. But It Ends When We Say it Ends - "Harry Potter" has been such a consistent moneymaker, that the studio was looking for any way to make the series last a little bit longer, even though they were committed to staying faithful to the narrative of the books. So they made the extremely unusal decision to split the last volume into two films, creating an extra summer tentpole for themselves this year. Since that decision, the "Twilight films have also followed suit, with an impending two-parter finale, and "The Hunger Games" is threatening to. But after this, there are no more reprieves. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" is the end of "Harry Potter."
Well, until the remakes anyway.