Fantastic Beasts could be Warner Bros' new cash cow

NEW YORK • It has been five years since Harry Potter appeared on the big screen to confront Lord Voldemort and cap an eight-film saga that raked in almost US$8 billion at the box office worldwide.

Last weekend, Warner Bros successfully resuscitated the beloved fictional universe of J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World, with a prequel that has given the studio a much needed boost.

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them topped the charts in its first weekend, with US$74.4 million (S$106.1 million) in ticket sales in the United States and Canada.

It beat some forecasts and fell short of others, but for the company, it hit the higher end of expectations. It marked Warner Bros' biggest opening weekend in some countries, including Britain, generating US$145.5 million from 63 overseas territories, the studio said on Monday.

Its financial and critical success is a victory for Warner Bros chief executive Kevin Tsujihara and a six-year plan he laid out in 2014.

The new franchise is just part of his strategy to face down rivals such as Walt Disney Co. With a series of films tied to DC Comics and Lego-based characters and stories, he is aiming for a highly profitable triple feature.

The Fantastic Beasts story of Newt Scamander and his magical creatures is the first of a five-movie tale that starts in 1926 and culminates in 1945. Unlike 2001's Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone or this year's Batman V Superman, Fantastic Beasts is based on new intellectual property, not bestselling novels or comics.

Mr Tsujihara took to Twitter to congratulate Rowling, who taught herself to write screenplays. "We can't wait for the next four films!" he wrote.

Warner Bros faces fierce competition from Disney, which is leading the industry with a 24 per cent market share, thanks to releases this year from each of its five movie labels.

These include hit machines Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm.

Warner Bros' superhero effort got off to a shaky start this year, with a critical mauling of Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad.

Unlike Marvel movies such as this year's Captain America: Civil War, none of the DC films has broken the US$1-billion mark.

The studio has since redoubled its efforts, appointing executives to focus specifically on the DC slate, with greater input from producers such as Ben Affleck to promote next year's Wonder Woman and Justice League.

"They're really trying to double down on DC," said Bloomberg Intelligence media analyst Geetha Ranganathan. "By no means are they bombs or anything, but the critical reception has been weak."

Fantastic Beasts is a big bet for Warner. It cost US$180 million to make - not including marketing costs - which is more than some of the Potter movies.

The Potter series had an average profit margin of about 55 per cent (when including home video and television licensing revenue), much more than an ordinary movie's haul of about 20 per cent, said Ms Ranganathan.

"I'm not sure if it's going to be as much of a cash cow as Harry Potter was," she added. "But it'll do pretty well."

In February, Warner Bros will debut The Lego Batman Movie, a spinoff of the 2014 hit film. A sequel, The Lego Movie 2, is set for 2019.

To be sure, Warner Bros has enjoyed hits outside these three pillars, with horror flicks such as Lights Out.

Fantastic Beasts, however, is not quite Harry Potter in the same way that DC Comics is not quite Marvel.

It does not have Daniel Radcliffe in his titular role as the bespectacled protagonist, or Emma Watson and Rupert Grint as his trusted buddies.

The setting is not Hogwarts in the present day, but early 20th-century New York.

That said, Eddie Redmayne plays an endearingly bashful Scamander as a "magizoologist" with a curious briefcase full of strange creatures, and the film does have plenty of magic of its own that could make it a big success for Warner Bros.

Nevertheless, the Wizarding World will have to deal with Disney's might soon enough.

While the film will benefit from the upcoming holiday weekend in the US - one of the year's biggest for moviegoing - it will also have to contend with the debut of the Disney animated film Moana, which has won overwhelmingly positive early reviews and is likely to attract hordes of kids and their parents.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2016, with the headline 'Fantastic Beasts could be Warner Bros' new cash cow'. Print Edition | Subscribe