Potter Works Wizardry Over Corporate Strategy

Warner Brothers hopes Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone fans will line up by the millions this weekend to see whether they have faithfully translated the popular character from books to film.

"The same way kids go back and read the book seven, eight, 11 times, we believe they may go back and see the movie again and again and again," says Diane Nelson, a senior vice president of Warner's Entertainment.

But Harry Potter is much more than a book and more than a movie. The boy wizard is the centerpiece of a global corporate strategy.

The movie was made by the film division of AOL Time Warner. With everything from television to magazines and Internet service, the newly-formed conglomerate reaches customers 2.5 billion times a month. It has 31 million subscribers to the AOL Internet service, 280 million magazine readers and 350 million television viewers each week. And all of them will be seeing a lot of Harry Potter.

'Harry Potter Offensive'

Writer Ken Auletta, who profiled the media conglomerate for The New Yorker, calls the movie release the "Harry Potter offensive."

"I have heard them say that you won't be able to move an inch without confronting Harry Potter," says Auletta. "And we see this, they've said to me, as perhaps the biggest movie franchise in the history of movies."

A movie franchise is something like Star Wars or Indiana Jones, a movie with sequel and marketing potential. There are a lot of backpacks and lunch boxes to be sold with Harry Potter's face on them.

"They see themselves creating books out of this and TV shows and music and other movies and T-shirts and other products and using it as a promotional vehicle to get people to subscribe to their magazines or their cable," says Auletta.

Harry Potter will be used to sell AOL Time Warner toys, games, music and Internet service. Magazines owned by the media giant feature Harry Potter. Click onto moviefone.com on the Internet, owned by AOL Time Warner, and there's Harry.

Careful Not to Exploit

But Warner executives say they know that even amidst all this, they still need to protect what's known in movie speak as a valuable "literary property."

"We have to be very careful to not exploit, not over commercialize, not take it from the kids and turn it into something that it's not," says Nelson.

There are critics, though, who say they already have. "What they're doing to Harry Potter is making it another widget inside the larger corporation," says Aurora Wallace, a professor at New York University's Culture and Communications Department. "It's not about magic, fantasy or wizardry even, it's about selling more subscriptions."

"They know that if you want to get the inside track on Harry Potter that you've got to be an AOL subscriber, you've got to turn to Entertainment Weekly, you've got to turn to Time magazine, you've got to buy the soundtrack on Atlantic records," she adds.

Nelson doesn't agree. "I think as long as we are true to the books, that's something that can co-exist quite nicely," she says. "The fans will see an expression of the books in the film and the video and the merchandise hopefully that they think is true and respectful of the initial book. But at the same time Warner Bros. will be building something that will help our business."

Harry Potter is opening to tepid reviews: some say the movie is too faithful to the book. But with six more books still to covert there's plenty of time to build a film and marketing franchise that could last until young Harry is a wizened wizard.