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Warner Marketing ‘Potter’ With Care

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Officials at the New York Stock Exchange who schedule the appearances of celebrities, newsmakers and other famous people wanted the young cast members starring in the upcoming “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” to ring the opening bell later this month.

But executives at Warner Bros. responsible for promoting the long-anticipated blockbuster movie rejected the offer.

Similarly, there will be none of the usual commercial tie-ins with fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s or Burger King that could generate tens of millions of dollars in free advertising for the film.

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Nor will Harry or his mates be seen swilling Coca-Cola or any other soft drink on the big screen. Warner Bros. also refrained from arranging the ubiquitous “making of” television shows that would have revealed the magic behind the movie’s special effects.

Preparing for the worldwide release of “Harry Potter"--which opens in U.S. theaters Nov. 16--has put Warner Bros. executives in an unusual quandary. They want to make sure their big event movie dominates the competitive holiday season in theaters and retail stores without jeopardizing a long-term franchise that is expected to bring in billions of dollars in revenue.

Overexposing and overcommercializing the first of as many as seven “Harry Potter” movies runs the risk of offending a generation of young readers and their parents who have turned the 11-year-old orphan hero into a pop culture icon.

J.K. Rowling’s best-selling book series about a boy wizard named Harry Potter and his adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has captivated young readers unlike any other in the video era.

Now, Warner’s $126-million movie adaptation of the first book must also enchant a mass audience in order to give the studio and its parent AOL Time Warner the kind of gigantic return hoped for.

Warner Bros. owns the movie, merchandising and other media rights to Rowling’s four published books with options for the series’ remaining three. The studio, which plans to make up to seven “Harry Potter” movies, hopes to build a major franchise that generates billions of dollars in revenue over decades from worldwide box office, video and DVD, television and merchandising sales.

“We didn’t want to burn the property out. We think it has a long life,” said Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer.

Industry experts predict that the upcoming “Harry Potter” release, expected to open in more than 3,000 theaters nationwide, will be one of the highest-grossing movies of the year at more than $200 million domestically.

“It’s going to be beyond huge,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations, who recently saw the movie. “It could set the record for the biggest opening weekend ever,” a $72.1-million record held by 1997’s hit “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.”

Taking a ‘Less Is More’ Approach to Property

It’s the potential windfall and strong desire to protect both the integrity of the brand and preserve its desired long-term relationship with Rowling that prompted Warner executives to adopt a “less is more” strategy when handling her creations.

“When a brand originates from a literary property like this, there’s a whole other level of protection you have to add because consumers are protective of being true to that property and not exploiting it,” said Diane Nelson, Warner’s senior vice president of family entertainment.

Warner executives also have learned a lesson from Walt Disney Co. overhyping its World War II drama “Pearl Harbor” far in advance of its release. Despite grossing nearly $200 million domestically and close to $250 million overseas, the film was perceived as a dud throughout the industry.

Other past event movies that have suffered overhype backlash were “Godzilla” and “The Last Action Hero.”

To guard against overexposure, Warner chose one global promotional partner, Coca-Cola, rather than linking up with half a dozen, which is often the case on big family movies.

And, to give the Coke promotional campaign more credence, Warner demanded that the advertiser establish a literacy program as well.

Warner also limited its domestic products licensees to 87, compared with more than 150 for its 1989 blockbuster “Batman.”

Dawn Taubin, Warner’s executive vice president of domestic marketing, said the studio went to great pains to take an equally low-key, measured approach in its publicity, promotion and advertising efforts.

For much of the last year, Warner kept tight controls over the release of “Harry Potter” artwork in publicity shots and advertising materials. Instead of unleashing a flood of behind-the-scenes television specials promoting the movie, the studio permitted only a few such programs, including a “Dateline” segment with Katie Couric visiting Hogwarts.

Warner also didn’t allow the usual barrage of broadcast or print location pieces during the movie’s production and dramatically limited media interviews with the cast up until last month.

The studio rejected numerous requests for “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe and other young cast members to appear in conventions and celebrity events, such as the appearance on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Though Warner is hosting two red-carpet celebrity premieres, one held in London Sunday and another in New York next Sunday, as well as an industry screening in Los Angeles without cast members Nov. 14, none of the events will include the usual glitzy parties.

“There will be no big parties, no fireworks, no lavish entertainment in the streets,” said Taubin, making a thinly veiled reference to Disney’s highly-publicized extravagant premiere this summer for “Pearl Harbor” aboard an aircraft carrier in Hawaii with live music by an 80-piece orchestra.

In the case of “Harry Potter,” said box-office expert Dergarabedian, the movie has the added pressure of living up to the phenomenal success of the books.

Kevin Lane Keller, a professor of marketing at Dartmouth College, said Warner’s “low-key, low-risk” strategy is smart. “There is already so much anticipation and interest, they don’t have to overhype,” Keller said.

Despite the studio’s somewhat subdued yearlong efforts, Taubin readily acknowledges that there is a major marketing campaign underway, which industry estimates peg at more than $40 million domestically.

“Even though we showed restraint, this is an A-level marketing campaign consistent with any big event movie ... in a very crowded marketplace,” she said.

Warner executives also concede that trying to contain consumer and media excitement this close to the film’s release is unrealistic.

Already, “Harry Potter” has been splashed over the covers of Premiere magazine and TV Guide (each ran four separate cover photos), Vanity Fair as well as Sixteen and Nickelodeon magazines.

This week’s issue of AOL Time Warner-owned Time magazine brags, “We’ve seen the movie!” in the corner edge of its cover, with a six-page inside spread with 11 color photos and a headline boasting: “The First Look At Harry.”

Warner gave Time first look at the movie and access to the set in hopes the story would run on the cover, but world news events landed President Bush there.

AOL Time Warner-owned Entertainment Weekly ran an unauthorized cover in its Sept. 14 issue in which Warner executives refused to participate.

But, in other ways, Warner is making the most of its relationship with AOL, which has 31 million subscribers.

“This is the biggest program we’ve ever done with AOL,” said Don Buckley, Warner’s New York-based head of Internet marketing who designed the movie’s main Web site, Harrypotter.com.

AOL has an extensive online cross-promotional program with links for users to enter contests, gossip in chat rooms and buy as much “Harry Potter” merchandise as they want. AOL-owned Moviefone is selling advance tickets online.

Nelson, the designated “Harry Potter” brand manager, works with AOL Time Warner business divisions to coordinate cross-promotional efforts.

In her five years at Warner, she said, “This is the first brand where there’s been a concerted focus at the inception of our planning to say we are going to coordinate divisionally and set certain guidelines to ensure we’re protecting the brand’s integrity for the long term.”

Guidelines for Products and Advertising

In June 2000, executives from the studio’s theatrical and online marketing, consumer products and other units formalized key guidelines that were communicated to Coke and the licensees.

The guidelines instructed the partners to know the books and stay true to them, not to introduce any products or advertising based on future books and to always work to bring consumers into Harry’s’ world.

One guideline suggested that where practical, products should be “artifacts rather than souvenirs,” meaning a briefcase should resemble one Harry and friends would carry at Hogwarts.

Over the course of their collaboration, “Harry” author Rowling voiced objections to certain products. She even protested some items in an e-mail that she asked to be shared with Warner Bros. President Alan Horn.

One was a pair of modern-looking sunglasses with lightning bolts on the frame. Harry’s trademark glasses are round, old-fashioned-looking wire frames. Another item Rowling objected to were cookie cutters.

“She thought the merchandise mix contained some products that weren’t of Harry’s world,” Horn said. “We’ve tried to be respectful of her sensibilities, but at the same time, we’re a major media corporation with a job to do.”

Warner obliged by nixing the sunglasses but kept the cookie cutters.

Warner also didn’t want to oversaturate the market with too many products, suggesting it took its cue from others’ mistakes.

Sean McGowan, a longtime toy industry analyst for Gerard Klauer Mattison in New York, said part of the reason for Warner’s softer pitch comes from hard sells of previous properties that didn’t pan out.

“They knew well enough not to kill the golden goose,” McGowan said. “But it wasn’t just visionary foresight. They watched some earlier geese get slain.”

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Times staff writer Abigail Goldman contributed to this report.


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