Monday, July 16, 2007

The King of Pop (Culture)?

After scoring a mind-boggling $44 million its first day in theaters, $77.4M for the weekend, $140M for its first 5 days .. however you add it up, the totals compute to a ridiculous figure. Mind you, "HP:ATOOTP" is easily the worst-reviewed of the Potter films, so these totals prove the franchise is officially critic-proof. No matter what people say (my guys on REEL TALK didn't like it at all, BTW) the fans intend to go see it. That, along with the stellar box office, must have the executive folks at Warner Bros. exhaling and resuming their Hamptons house-hunting. They're also an indicator of just how strong a hold Mr. Potter has on mass audiences.

In TV a long-running series starts to lose steam, creatively and popularly, after its 3rd or 4th season. In the movies, the decline begins even earlier (Remember how fast the Matrix lost its coolness once Reloaded & Revolutions stumbled into theaters?). And the few franchises that have lasted past 3 chapters (off the top of my head ... Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Land Before Time, Halloween, Friday the 13th ..) have all either hit significant stumbling blocks that they could never fully recover from (Phantom Menace, ST: The Final Frontier .. any Land Before Time after the first, Winona Ryder) or degenerated into self-parodying schlock that was churned out just to cash in a quick buck. Harry Potter is different, however.

The unique situation of having the book series that inspired the movies continuing to be insanely popular has helped sustain interest in the franchise beyond the usual lifespan. Also, since the books were a few chapters ahead of when the first film was made, its built anticipation amongst the audience waiting for the chapters they've read to show up onscreen.

I also think the fact that the 3 stars were so well-cast is going to pay off in these last 3 films. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have really made their characters their own, to the point that the fans couldn't see anyone else in those roles. And now that they've reached their late teens - in real life and in the films - it will make for better movies. Think about it. They're all veteran actors now who have learned their craft in these roles. The next 2 films should only see more improvement as they mature. And maturing along with them, are the fans who have grown up reading the books/watching films. Because Harry and the others have continued to age and grow up and not be stuck in an 'Archie in Riverdale' time warp, the Potter franchise has avoided the potential problem of being left behind by kids who have 'outgrown' the material.

Alot of people, myself included, have criticized the films for being too close to the original source material. Its as if the directors were somewhat lazy and didn't try to take too many liberties with the subject matter. Considering how popular the movies have been, its painfully apparent most people disagree with that assessment. Potter fans don't want a different spin on the stories they read. They want to see them AS IS on the screen, and the filmmakers have obliged.

Now obviously the key ingredient in all this is JK Rowling's incredible characters and storylines. Its a one-in-a-million Perfect Storm that appeals to practically anyone who's ever read them. I have NEVER met someone who has said, "yeah, I picked up the first Potter book, but I just couldn't get into it." NEVER.

My 62-year-old mother pores over each book like one of those 10-year-olds you see on the news whenever a new Potter book goes on sale at midnight. Then she gives them to my 2 nieces, who are 14 and 11. Its incredible. And that's how it is ACROSS THE WORLD. Its important to remember, that no matter how popular he is here in the States, he's that much more popular everywhere else on the planet. Harry Potter may be the last literary phenomenon of our lifetime. With so many other options competing for kids' free time, that's not a far-fetched statement to make. And that's all due to Ms. Rowling's imaginative writing.

The very nature of the books - the story of a boy wizard who learns about spells and real life while dealing with all the complications that go along with both - lends itself to a certain kind of devoted following that a regular, dyed-in-the wool, grounded-in-reality TV show/Movie/Broadway show just can't earn.
Grey's Anatomy may be TV's top show, but you don't see people dressing up as Mcdreamy at conventions do you?
Jersey Boys may be Broadway's hardest ticket to score, but they don't have a crowd of teenage, free-spending fans waiting outside the stage door like Spring Awakening does.

My point is, if you want success, any quality production can earn it. But if you want a Cultural touchstone, you should set the cop drama in space or in Fantasyland or someplace other than Brooklyn. Because the really devoted fans, the ones that make it a 'happening,' that buy all the related merchandise .. want their real-life metaphors wrapped in escapist fare, and they want their heroes to attend a school called Hogwarts.

So in this fragmented, Demo-specific, 500 channel, Internet-always-on universe we live in, a British boy wizard has become perhaps the last across-the-charts singular pop culture sensation. And folks, there isn't anyone - or anything - that's even close.

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