As J.K. Rowling continues to expand the “Harry Potter” universe, the generation that grew up watching onscreen adventures of the Boy Who Lived have remained a faithful bunch.
That much was clear from the opening weekend of “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” the latest installment in the seemingly endless array of “Harry Potter” sequels, prequels, spinoffs and stage shows. The umpteenth return to the fantasy series launched with $62 million at the domestic box office, a sizable and potentially problematic drop from “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” Like the first “Fantastic Beasts” installment, the audience breakdown was much older than the movies centering around the bespectacled boy wizard.
The lower than expected start displays that beyond die-hard fans, the Wizarding World has struggled to entice a new wave of Potterheads. Unless the fantastical saga can prove its relevance to younger audiences, Warner Bros. might find that each new installment in the intended five-film franchise represents a case of diminishing returns. And is it any wonder? After all, “Harry Potter” first became a literary sensation back in 1997 back when Bill Clinton was president and Donald Trump was still mired in Chapter 11 and reality show stardom, let alone the White House, wasn’t even a glint in the real estate developer’s eye. An entire new generation has come of age since that point.
It’s an issue the original movies never faced. In fact, what made the eight “Harry Potter” films so magical is that kids were as equally interested as their parents to see how the exploits of Harry, Hermione, and Ron would play out on the big screen. The new saga just hasn’t had the same universal appeal. Despite the rich mythology that Rowling was able to explore in the spinoffs, adolescents haven’t been captivated by the new chapter that follows magizoologist Newt Scamander, a character played by Eddie Redmayne whose only connection to the “Harry Potter” films was penning a virtually irrelevant textbook about, you guessed it, fantastic beasts.
This is “Harry Potter” we’re talking about, and that means the muggles who turned out in droves for midnight screenings of the first eight films were going to see what events unfold in the prequel series whether or not the new chapters were worthy. That proved true yet again with “Crimes of Grindelwald” as 69% of moviegoers were over the age of 25, and only 14% of audience members were under 18 years old. That’s even slightly older than the first “Fantastic Beasts” entry, where 65% of ticket buyers were older than 25 years old and 18% were under the age of 18. For comparison, well over 50% of crowds for every “Harry Potter” movie were teens and younger.
Enthusiasm, in North America at least, has already started to dwindle and its worth questioning how long these movies can endure without a growing fanbase. A studio hopes that the highly anticipated sequel from one of the biggest franchises of all time should see a stronger opening weekend than its predecessor, or at least one that’s roughly in line with the first film’s result. Instead, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” got off to a slower start at the domestic box office and might struggle to keep momentum going as a crowded Thanksgiving frame nears.
It didn’t help that the follow-up generated the worst reviews yet for a “Harry Potter” installment. Critics blasted the messy plot that follows less established characters and saddled it with a disappointing 40% on Rotten Tomatoes. For measure, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” landed a so-so 74% average, while the “Harry Potter” movies all fell between a range of 78% and 96%. Even audiences have been less welcoming, giving this film a B+ CinemaScore, whereas the first spinoff generated an A-.
Adding to the sense of anxiety on the Warners lot is the reality that these movies are only getting more expensive to make. “The Crimes of Grindelwald” carried a hefty $200 million price tag, meanwhile the first one cost $175 million. Budgets don’t tend to shrink as a franchise nears its conclusion.
A common gripe with “Fantastic Beasts” has been that the prequel series had all but abandoned “Harry Potter’s” appeal to kids. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” was comprised of an almost entirely adult cast, but the title promised an wealth of fantastical creatures that could entice adolescents. Instead of amending that oversight for future chapters, “Crimes of Grindelwald” makes younger audiences seem like a even more of an afterthought as witches and wizards prepare for a full-fledged world war. Maybe the next sequel should throw in a pre-adolescent protagonist (perhaps one we’ve already met in “Harry Potter”) to help Newt?
“When you ostracize a majority of your potential audiences, it’s a huge issue,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations.
In all fairness, “Harry Potter” has always been about much more than its domestic fanbase. International crowds have reliably propelled box office revenues, and foreign markets have accounted for over double ticket sales for every installment. Overseas, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” debuted with $191 million, which represents a head start on its predecessor. The sequel has performed exceptionally well in Europe compared to the last “Fantastic Beasts” movie as the gang heads to Paris in an attempt to stop the infamous dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald. The first “Fantastic Beasts” took place in New York.
“All of the films, including ‘Harry Potter,’ have an international skew,” said Ron Sanders, head of worldwide distribution at Warner Bros. “Having the foreign locations featured helps the films.”
There’s no doubt Rowling will throw wrenches and raise the stakes as she continues to shape a story in which Potter aficionados otherwise largely know the outcome. But with three more installments planned, Warner Bros. will need more than a little magic to keep audiences coming back. At some point, every franchise grows tired. The fact is that two films in, “Fantastic Beasts” is starting to show some signs of fatigue.