The folks running Warner Bros. Pictures are having an existential moment. From Discovery’s purchase of its parent company, WarnerMedia, to the budget cuts that followed, and the losses reported ahead of an earnings call on Thursday, the studio’s future looks fuzzy. Any kind of cultural revival, according to Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, starts with franchises — and involves making a whole lot more of them.
During that earnings call, Zaslav explained his plans for the company to prioritize its biggest franchises:
Focus on the big movies that are loved, that are tentpoles, that people are going to leave early from dinner to go see — and we have a lot of them. Batman, Superman, Aquaman, if we can do something with JK [Rowling] on Harry Potter going forward, Lord of the Rings, what are we doing with Game of Thrones? What are we doing with a lot of the big franchises that we have? We’re focused on franchises.
“Do something with JK” could mean that Zaslav wants to remove Rowling from the series’ theatrical future, or that WB simply has the ambition to broker a new deal with the Harry Potter writer. But as it stands, it’s a potentially troubling statement, considering the once-beloved author’s consistent remarks that many have deemed transphobic. Zaslav did not specify what, creatively, Rowling has to offer the Harry Potter series other than to say that the franchise is ripe for a continuation.
Curiously, the CEO also said to investors that the studio hasn’t “done a Harry Potter movie in 15 years.” That isn’t exactly true. WB is technically in the middle of a new Harry Potter franchise right now with the Fantastic Beasts series, which is being written and overseen by Rowling herself. But no one, not even Zaslav, seems to care about Fantastic Beasts. (Ouch?)
While the first Fantastic Beasts movie — which, of the three released so far, happens to be the one that’s least directly connected to the original Potter story — made a killing at the box office, the other two have struggled to amass American viewership. The Crimes of Grindelwald couldn’t match its predecessor’s highs in 2018, and The Secrets of Dumbledore was a bomb earlier this year, failing to even reach $100 million at the domestic box office. So if that’s what attaching Rowling (and her constant transphobia) to the franchise gets you, what’s the point?
The short answer is that Warner Bros. retains the rights to the Harry Potter universe in conjunction with Rowling herself. Any future Potter projects would have to go through her, and her company, as well as the studio. But beyond agreeing to let WB produce more movies, it doesn’t seem that Rowling adds too much value to this series — because right now, it’s unclear what the “Harry Potter franchise” ultimately is. Do Zaslav and Warner Bros. hope to bring back the original cast as adults, or recast them with older actors to tell a story of the next time the Wizarding World is in peril? With Fantastic Beasts bombing and the focus back on Harry himself, it also seems like WB might not be so keen on the Marauders prequel — which would follow the generation ahead of Harry’s during their time at Hogwarts — that fans have spent years clamoring for.
Perhaps the best answer for Zaslav and Warner Bros. is the most obvious one: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The stage play, which was overseen by Rowling but written by Jack Thorne (who adapted His Dark Materials for WarnerMedia’s HBO), is a sequel to the original Harry Potter story and follows the children of the series’ main characters. The show has been wildly successful since it premiered in 2016, and thanks to a recent reconstruction from a two-night Broadway event into a one-night show, continues to sell out wherever it’s playing. While a movie version of the story might undercut ticket sales, a sequel to the play, with the kids a little further into their Hogwarts experience, could give fans the perfect mix of nostalgia for old characters and a new story to dig into.
It’s no surprise that Warner Bros. wants to use franchises to dig itself out of its current hole. As Zaslav himself said, the company has a lot of them and they’re pretty popular. House of the Dragon has just finished a massive first season, the return of Henry Cavill’s Superman has the whole internet excited, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that Amazon Studios’ biggest show of the year came from a franchise that Warner Bros. still holds the movie rights to.
Going back to the Harry Potter well seems like the obvious next step for Warner Bros., and despite everything, the franchise remains one of the most popular brands in the world. But finding a way to bring that success back to movie theaters won’t be easy.