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The return of Harry Potter: Is it still magical?

Tribune News Service • Jul 29, 2016 at 2:32 PM

The boy who lived will never die. His creator — and his production team — love him too terribly much.

After J.K. Rowling catapulted teen fiction into a new stratosphere with “Harry Potter,” the best-selling book series in history, she conquered Hollywood with an eight-movie film franchise that stands as the second-highest-grossing ever.

When the end credits rolled on that final movie in 2011, to casual fans it seemed like Harry’s world had come to a natural conclusion — an epilogue sending the now thirty-something characters on their wizarding ways.

But it was far from over. Sunday marks the latest chapter for Muggleland and its ballooning economy. Fans across the country are slipping into robes and painting lightning bolts on their foreheads to celebrate the midnight release of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Alison Nguyen, president of the Harry Potter Literature Club at the University of Minnesota, said she went numb at the close of Harry’s original adventures. “I don’t know what to look forward to,” she thought at the time.

Now she and millions of fans know: Ahead lay an avalanche of new movies, plays and books.

While many fans are charmed to rejoin the Hogwarts gang, others worry that this expanding list of products could wreck their beloved universe. The new book is being promoted as the eighth in the series, yet it’s actually the script to the play that opened recently in London. Rowling, a powerful hands-on author, is raising her wand to light the road ahead — but is she actually just selling out?

CASTING A SPELL ON FANDOM

Rowling became the world’s first billionaire author, then dropped off that list after giving away a fortune to charity. Still, recent industry estimates put the franchise’s worth at $24 billion.

So she’s not selling out, most fans say, she’s just selling.

“This play would never have happened if this particular team had never come to me,” Rowling said about “Cursed Child” on BBC Radio 2 last year. “I didn’t go looking for this; this found me.”

Even if Rowling never picked up another quill in her life, fans would continue building her empire, one time-extensive project at time.

There are more than 746,000 fan-created stories on fanfiction.net, in addition to Kickstarter-funded films detailing the back stories of characters, such as “Severus Snape and the Marauders.” Conventions rise up and “wizarding bands” wail in bookstores across the world.

The beauty of this particular fandom, said Lori Campbell, who teaches “Harry Potter: Blood, Power, Culture” at the University of Pittsburgh, is its lack of backlash.

When something reaches peak popularity, such as Potter, people usually “turn against it and want to disown it or tear it down,” Campbell said in an email. “I haven’t met anyone who USED to be a fan.”

But whereas Lucas cashed out when he sold “Star Wars” to Disney, Campbell credited Rowling for keeping her work controlled and authentic, from e-book rights to merchandising. Fancy some fish and chips at Universal’s Hogwarts theme park? They come with tartar sauce and the author’s signoff.

But some recent moves leave fans, including Kat Miller, creative and marketing director of fan site MuggleNet, feeling conflicted.

Rowling, for the first time, is publishing an e-book of the screenplay to “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the first in a trilogy of films that will begin hitting theaters in November.

Whereas the children’s book “The Tales of Beedle and the Bard” and the original “Fantastic Beasts” textbooks expanded the universe, Miller said, the screenplay just capitalizes on fans’ wallets and excitement.

“That, to me, felt like a money move instead of a passion move, which is something we aren’t used to from Jo,” Miller said, Jo being how fans address Rowling.

Keith Hawk, managing editor of MuggleNet and a car salesman from Pennsylvania, expects a Potter TV series in the next 15 years. He welcomes new products — as long as no one pretends they are canon, or part of or in line with the original series. “The more you take things as canon, the less believable the fake world is,” he said.

He said he would support new Potter books taking place in an alternative time frame, but otherwise, “I would tell (Rowling) to her face, ‘No, that’s not canon. Don’t play with that.’ “

Miller also has something to say about Rowling’s marketing “Cursed Child” (written by playwright Jack Thorne, working from an original story co-written with Rowling and the play’s director, John Tiffany) as the “eighth story.” Harry’s story is done, Miller said. Leave him alone, if you can.

“Am I going to buy the script? Absolutely. Do I have tickets to see the play? Absolutely,” she said. “Does that mean I’m really excited about it? The jury’s still out.”

UNIVERSE OF POSSIBILITIES

In today’s entertainment world, goodbye is never forever. Witness Marvel superheroes and “Star Wars” characters. After prequels and sequels dry up, a movie studio may go to “another silo,” for example, unpacking a side character’s story for a Netflix series or yet another movie, said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore.

To manage these properties, Warner Bros. hired acclaimed comic-book writer Geoff Johns to oversee DC Comics as its chief creative officer, and the studio just firmed up a team of four senior managers to handle the growing Harry Potter universe.

Miller said she believes that the corporate side of Potter has lost touch with the community. Its September relaunch of Pottermore, the official fan website, shifted focus to promotional materials instead of preserving fans’ “special geeky place.”

To Hawk, some of Rowling’s tweets seem designed solely to get the fandom all atwitter for Warner Bros., such as when the author tweeted that Ron and Hermione will suffer marital issues.

“What was the point of that?” Hawk said. “It just sparked a fury of Harry Potter debates and everything, which is all good for business.”

Rowling declined to be interviewed for this story.

As fans grow and mature, however, so does the franchise.

The University of Minnesota is home to one of the world’s largest intramural Quidditch teams; about 165 students play the Potter-inspired sport with brooms clamped between their thighs. Cally O’Neill, team president, said more content will boost opportunities to meet her generation’s demands to diversify the series.

The casting of a black actor as Hermione in “Cursed Child” divided the community into those who thought it defied canon and those who appreciated more diversity.

For the record, Rowling ruled on this matter with a tweet: “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione” with a kissing emoji.

Real-life Dumbledore’s Armies raised more than $123,000 for Haiti disaster relief, then also flexed the fan base’s muscle by pressuring Warner Bros. to switch to fair-trade chocolate for park fare and merchandise in 2014.

Fans hold a strong hand but would flee without Rowling’s stamp of approval, Dergarabedian said, not that he expects her to ever fully sign off.

“To be able to re-evaluate and reinvigorate a brand like this with the original author is pure magic,” he said.

– By Danielle Fox, Minneapolis Star Tribune (TNS)

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