It’s been nearly 20 years since Harry Potter, the bespectacled boy wizard, first sprang on the pop culture scene as the main attraction in J.K. Rowling’s fantasy novels. A film version of the best-selling phenomenon hit screens in 2001, kicking off a franchise that has grossed $2.5 billion globally, inspiring theme park rides and a wide array of merchandising.
Over the ensuing decades, the generation that first embraced the stories of the “boy who lived,” has come of age. They’re adults now, some sporting their own children.
As “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” demonstrates, they’ve done a lot of growing up. The Harry Potter spinoff debuted to $75 million over the weekend, and unlike other films in the wizarding series, adults comprised the bulk of the audience. Sixty five percent of consumers clocked in over the age of 25, with 35% of the opening weekend crowd under 25 years old and 18% under the age of 18. The link to Potter was a big draw, with 51% of consumers citing its connection to the previous films as a reason for seeing “Fantastic Beasts,” according to a comScore survey.
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“The story itself skews a little older and from the first Potter film to the last, we’ve seen our audience age up,” said Jeff Goldstein, president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros., the studio behind the Potter films.
Goldstein believes that the audience for “Fantastic Beasts” will become more youthful next week as schools let out for Thanksgiving. By Wednesday, 75% of children will be on vacation and by Thursday that hits 100%.
There’s a central difference between the spinoff film and its Potter predecessors, however. Unlike previous Harry Potter films, which traced their central characters’ journey from pre-adolescence to young adulthood, “Fantastic Beasts” is entirely populated by grown-ups. That may change.
“My sold-out screening was nearly all adults,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “In the next installment I bet we will see young characters who grow up to be something like [Potter franchise mainstay] Snape.”
The demographic shift took place throughout the lifespan of the Potter film franchise, a fact that was reflected in their ratings. The initial three films had PG ratings, but beginning in 2005 with “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” all of the remaining sequels and “Fantastic Beasts” were rated PG-13.
The first Potter film, “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” drew an opening weekend crowd that was a third children. Its sequel, “Chamber of Secrets,” had an audience that was 60% under the age of 15, whereas the third installment, “Prisoner of Azkaban,” drew a debut crowd that was 60% under the age of 17.
By the time the final two Potter films hit theaters in 2010 and 2011, opening weekend ticket buyers were 56% under the age of 25 and 45% under that threshold.
Warner Bros. views “Fantastic Beasts” as an important part of its future and plans to make five films in the series. Along with its DC Comics cinematic universe, the Potter spinoff is seen as a way to return the studio to its glory days, a time when it had franchises like “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Dark Knight” in its arsenal. That means that a generation that grew up with the boy wizard must introduce Hogwarts to a younger crowd if the films want to continue to remain relevant.
For its part, the studio believes that “Fantastic Beasts,” with its magical creatures and wand battles, will provide an antidote to an audience trying to shake off the presidential elections blues. The contest between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton was one of the nastiest in recent history, and polling suggests a majority of Americans aren’t “proud” of the outcome.
“In this climate, this is the perfect escape movie,” said Goldstein. “It’s a chance for families to have fun together. There’s a lot of reality going on since the election and this has the magic we need to get a break from it all.”