Even though Warner Bros. adapted the final Harry Potter novel with the two-part Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2010 and 2011, the studio found a way to keep one of their most lucrative franchises alive on the big screen. This fall sees the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of a planned trilogy of spinoffs. The film revolves around Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), as he ventures through 1920s New York in an effort to find some escaped magical creatures. In the Potter universe, Scamander goes on to write a Hogwarts textbook that shares the name of the movie.
Die-hard fans of the series are rightfully excited by the project, as it’s an extension of the wizarding world of Harry Potter. However, there’s some question as to whether or not casual audiences share that enthusiasm. In Fandango’s poll of 2016’s most anticipated films, Fantastic Beasts could not even hit the top 10 – despite its association with a highly recognizable brand. Part of that could be the fact that it doesn’t open until November (nine of the 10 titles on the list open before summer ends). That said, the poll’s victor, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, debuts in December and has seen less marketing than Fantastic Beasts at this juncture. That may pose a problem for WB.
It’s difficult to say anything that’s part of the Harry Potter property is a risk, but Fantastic Beasts represents a minor one. They have a challenge to show the general moviegoing public why they should care about a spinoff for a film series that definitively ended five years ago. That’s why there are some dangers of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but there are also ways to combat them.
Harry Potter Without Harry Potter
The most glaring issue regarding Fantastic Beasts is that it’s being sold to casual audiences as a return to the Harry Potter universe, only it does not feature any of the characters moviegoers fell in love with over the course of 10 years. Fantastic Beasts takes place 70 years before Harry, Ron, and Hermione attended school, meaning that there isn’t even a chance any of them cameo. This film relies more on the brand itself than the memorable Potter heroes and villains, eliminating a crucial component that made the original series a rousing hit.
The idea is very similar to 2012’s The Bourne Legacy, which was a spinoff of the famous Bourne action franchise. Despite having Bourne in the title, the movie did not feature Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), and instead was about a new agent: Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner). This proved to be confusing for viewers, since they were left wondering why the title character was not part of the story. Even though it was an extension of a very successful trilogy of action flicks, moviegoers were not so enamored with the world itself. They cared more about the protagonist that made the first movies great. It’s no surprise that Universal has ditched plans for a Legacy followup to make way for Damon’s anticipated return to his Jason Bourne role in July 2016.
There’s an art to marketing major franchise films, and it’s primarily about tapping into the elements the general public are familiar with. When the average moviegoer thinks about Harry Potter, they think of the Hogwarts castle, Voldemort, Harry and his friends escaping trouble, and several other things. Unfortunately for them, Fantastic Beasts does not contain any of these aspects. It’s a wholly standalone story in a completely different setting with a new cast of characters. The nostalgia card can only go so far; John Williams’ musical theme could be brought back and the teaser mentions Harry Potter. But if audiences don’t see things they know and love, some are going to be wondering why they should get hyped.
It’s for this reason the planned Star Wars Anthologies make sense from a business perspective. Even though they’re not inherently connected to the main saga narrative, they have pieces that are well-known. Rogue One has a large role for famed villain Darth Vader. The untitled young Han Solo movie – though starring a new actor – will still have the smuggler flying on the Millennium Falcon with Chewbacca. In both instances, they have some of the most recognizable (and marketable) parts of the Star Wars franchise, giving the longtime fans and casual viewers reasons to be excited. For better or worse, they can even change how one watches the original trilogy thanks to the characters they feature.
It will be interesting to see which spinoff method proves to be the most successful. The smart money is on Star Wars right now, because Lucasfilm can put a Darth Vader money shot in a Rogue One teaser (the Dark Side version of “Chewie, we’re home”) and send the Internet into a frenzy. But just because Fantastic Beasts won’t have any of the wizards or witches audiences have already met doesn’t mean it’s set up for failure. There’s a clear passion many have for the brand, which is why WB moved forward with this concept. It all comes down to how they advertise it in the months leading up to the premiere.
Selling Casual Audiences
When devising its marketing campaign, WB can actually take a page out of the highly successful Star Wars: The Force Awakens playbook. While conjuring up old emotions was no doubt part of the trailers and TV spots, Lucasfilm did a great job of mixing the old with the new. The younger characters were placed front and center, showing that The Force Awakens was telling their story. Any involvement of returning classic trilogy protagonists was largely downplayed, which helped make The Force Awakens a great starting off point for newcomers to the series. The advertising materials illustrated why Star Wars 7 could stand on its own merits and be something anyone could enjoy.
That should be the game plan for Fantastic Beasts. Since WB is working with a big franchise, they would be wise to incorporate nostalgia, but dial it down to a reasonable level. The teaser trailer was an excellent start, briefly mentioning the Harry Potter connection before going off into its own thing. That’ll be the key down the line. It’s important for WB to ensure the new movie stands on its own merits without relying too heavily on the crutch of what’s come before. Selling Fantastic Beasts as a fun fantasy adventure (that just happens to take place in the Potter universe) would be for the best, instead of hammering home the association. That way, audience expectations of what to expect could be managed; it’s something new that is set in a familiar world.
Fantastic Beasts would also be helped immensely by positive word-of-mouth. Bourne Legacy‘s greatest downfall wasn’t a lack of Jason Bourne, it was the mediocre reviews it received. That had a negative impact on the box office prospects, leading to the lowest returns the franchise saw. On paper, the idea was solid enough (following another operative from the CIA’s advanced programs), but the execution was flawed. If Legacy had turned out to be a better film, things could have played out differently. Perhaps Renner’s Cross is now established as the new series lead instead of being placed on the back burner while the old band gets back together. Maybe Cross and Damon team up to go on a mission together. For now, Cross didn’t leave much of a legacy.
Fortunately, Fantastic Beasts appears to be in strong hands. It’s directed by David Yates, who helmed the last four Potter films, all of which were well-received. He seems to know his way around this particular universe and has shown to have a good grasp on the material. In addition, none other than J.K. Rowling penned the screenplay. That’s a huge factor and it bodes very well for the film’s potential quality. As the creator of the wizarding world, Rowling would not come back to her beloved brand unless she felt it was a worthwhile addition to the canon. More than anyone else, she knows how much the Harry Potter franchise means to fans and doesn’t want to disappoint them.
The trailer makes a point to mention Rowling’s name, and you can bet that will continue as the year goes on. Highlighting the creative team (which moviegoers are familiar with) would be a great way of selling Fantastic Beasts to the casual crowd. Yates and Rowling (though, this is her first movie script) have generated goodwill with viewers thanks to their previous works. Playing up their involvement as marketing heats up could go a long way in increasing anticipation for Fantastic Beasts. The original Potter films, particularly the last one, are as popular now as they were when they were released. Knowing that the filmmaker behind Deathly Hallows is returning to tell a new story in the world is an exciting proposition, even without any recognizable characters.
Technically being positioned as a Harry Potter film, but without Harry Potter, puts Fantastic Beasts in a tricky spot, since some moviegoers may wonder why they should care about the project. There are plenty of blockbusters opening this year that have more recognizable elements, and Fantastic Beasts could slip past the radar if WB isn’t careful with the way the studio promotes it down the line. Much like Avatar, Harry Potter is another huge film property that finds itself in a very different landscape compared to when audiences last saw it.
Luckily, the pieces are in place for Fantastic Beasts to be a strong hit. The announcement teaser was a good start, finding the right balance between franchise recognition and new elements. It’s noteworthy that the preview did not mention Harry Potter’s name (just “return to the wizarding world”). As long as the campaign focuses on making Fantastic Beasts its own thing, carried by the charms of Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, it should be in good shape. Even without any new books or films in the past handful of years, Harry Potter as a brand continues to resonate in pop culture, so WB knows interest has to be there.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opens in U.S. theaters on November 18, 2016.