At the start of the new ``Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the house-elf Dobby warns our young sorcerer not to go back to Hogwarts School for a second year.
The little guy must have been a marketing major. Prospects for Harrys sophomore outing are daunting. The buzz that surrounded last years debut isnt quite so deafening this time. Harrys prolific creator, author J.K. Rowling, has stopped churning them out the way she used to. And Hollywood insiders are predicting dramatically diminished box office for ``Chamber of Secrets.
But its too late to give in to doubts now, because, ready or not, the Harry blitz is about to start. Again.
On Friday, Warner Brothers will open its second Harry Potter installment on more than 8,200 screens, the most ever for a title. For hard-core fans who dont have school or work the next day, many theaters are offering shows at the stroke of midnight.
The studio used the same carpet-bombing strategy to drive the original film, ``Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, to a $90 million take in its opening weekend, a domestic record until ``Spider-Man came along in May. ``Sorcerers Stone went on to earn $318 million, and took the title as 2001s highest-grossing film, both here and worldwide.
Now the boy wizard has to do it again.
Some experts think ``Chamber of Secrets is a lock.
``This is the `Star Wars of kid films, says Stacey Lynn Koerner, a senior vice president at the media-buying company Initiative Media. ``Its a phenomenon that has generated a huge fan culture.
Others are skeptical. ``It will be a commercial success, predicts Martin Grove, columnist for the Hollywood Reporter Online, ``but not as big as the first.
Most industry analysts project U.S. and Canadian ticket sales in the $250 million range this time more than 25 percent less than the first installment despite higher ticket prices. Anything under $200 million, and Warners which begins filming part three in the saga in January could reconsider its option to produce all seven of projected Potter titles.
Look at the ads for ``Chamber of Secrets, and youll see that the filmmakers are doing all they can to juice up the formula. Theres our formerly unassuming apprentice sorcerer, glaring at the camera, gripping a sword, and braced for action. Say hello to Dirty Harry Potter.
``The goal was to make it a lot more exciting and a little more violent, says Chris Columbus, who directed both Potter films. Though the movie starts off innocently enough, the eventual thrills, chills and special effects far outflourish the original.
Sequels are a tricky business, particularly in the ephemeral kids world. Cranking up the action-adventure quotient is one way to get young fans to revisit, according to Albie Hecht, president of film and TV entertainment at Nickelodeon.
``You have to make it special for them, he says. ``Take them to a place where they havent been before. (The trailer for ``Chamber of Secrets) says to kids: You may have been 8 the last time you saw this. Now youre 9 or 10, and we have a whole new level of excitement for you.
That distinction could be lost on grown-up viewers. Members of that desirable crossover demographic are likely to be less entranced with 2 hours and 42 minutes of adolescent antics, however sleekly produced.
``Its confusing, Grove says. ``They said they would make this one darker, edgier and more adult. Yet so much of the action revolves around Dobby, who I found extremely annoying and juvenile.
Obviously, the filmmakers cant deviate far from the source material. ``The critical consensus was, the (first) film was too slavish to the book, says John Rash, senior vice president of the advertising agency Campbell Mithun. ``Yet had Warner Brothers not tried to replicate the reading experience, an army of 9-year-olds would have stood up in theaters and shouted: 'Thats not how it happened!'"
And some have called ``Chamber of Secrets the weak link in Rowlings chain. A former studio head sniffs: ``I happen to have read the books, and, in my opinion, this is the weakest of the four in terms of plot.
``'Lord of the Rings' has more freedom, Rash says, ``because in general they are targeting an older, more sophisticated audience that will allow them more creative license.
The two fantasy blockbusters, ``Harry Potter and ``The Lord of the Rings, are now perceived as franchises with divergent trajectories. The ``Fellowship of the Ring, the first in director Peter Jacksons three-film Tolkien cycle, piqued peoples interest. Its sequel, ``The Two Towers, due out Dec. 18, is expected to outpace the original, which earned $313 million domestically.
While ``The Sorcerers Stone was entertaining, it seems to have quenched peoples curiosity about Harry. In England, where ``Chamber of Secrets opened last week, reviews have been glowing. ("Darker, funnier and finer than its forerunner," an approving Guardian critic said.) But here, you dont need a witch to tell you that ``Chamber of Secrets is generating less anticipation than its predecessor.
A seventh-grade teacher will do like Irene Dansky of Cedarbrook Middle School in Cheltenham, Pa.
``Last year at this time, the kids in my class were all buzzing about Harry Potter, Dansky says. ``This year, theyre talking about how they can get into that film with the rapper (Eminem in '8 Mile').
``With the first movie, says Chris Saad, who owns the childrens book store Chris Corner in Philadelphia, ``kids were constantly coming into the store talking about it and how much they were looking forward to it. Im not hearing anything from the kids about the second movie. I dont think theyre excited about it anymore.
That indifference has already found its way into the marketplace. ``They couldnt buy the Harry Potter stuff fast enough last year. The costumes and products were very popular last Halloween, says Maria Weiskott, editor in chief of the toy-merchandising magazine Playthings. ``This year, the wizard phenomenon was over. It was Spider-Man and more traditional brands like Winnie the Pooh and Blues Clues. If the book had come out, that might would have piqued interest.
Ah, the book. A good deal of the blame for Harrys stalled momentum can be laid at the door of his creator. Rowling hammered out the opening quartet in her series with troll-like efficiency.
Then she got married for a second time just after Christmas last year, and is now pregnant. A plagiarism suit, since thrown out of court, also monopolized her time. Not surprisingly, the fifth book, ``Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is still germinating. Fans who expected it over the summer may have to wait until late next year. As a result, the worldwide Harry industry cramped to a crawl.
Now, instead of riding a wave of acclaim, as its predecessor did, ``Chamber of Secrets must generate its own enthusiasm. But a slower start does not necessarily doom the movie as long as its the talk of the lunchroom come Monday among members of its core audience.
In the end, the proof is in the potion.
``Word of mouth will drive it, Grove says. ``If word of mouth is good, people will flock to it. If it isnt ...
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