JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

“Tie-ins” in Harry Potter
Media conglomerates employ marketing executives who come primarily from advertising. They rely on market research models developed for the sale of packaged goods and merchandise.

Fans wrote Rowling asking her not to let Coke use Potter. She wanted the contract but Coke responded to the pressure and did not use product placement in the film or depict Harry drinking Coke. If they did put Coke in the film, maybe the commercialized nature of the fantasy would have been easier to point out to kids.

See how a tie-in for a child’s toy is built into the structure and visual style of the film:

Aspiring wizards eye the broom in the shop window...

...The camera pans to reveal its brand name...

...Harry receives a birthday gift...

...The children can't wait to open it...

...And, of course, the gift is none other than the Nimbus 2000.

 

Of movies and “Muggles” —
political economy and
the event film

In many ways the basic logic of commercial filmmaking has remained the same, i.e., to minimize production costs and maximize profits. However, the nature of the business has changed because of media mergers in the late twentieth century and new technologies, such as television, VCR, and the Internet. Janet Staiger and Justin Wyatt have shown how ownership shifts in the industry have increased costs and, therefore, risks in the movies business.

According to Janet Staiger, the studio system has given way to the package unit system of film production. In the newer form of production, a producer organizes a film project, secures finance and combines the necessary workers (actors, director, music composer) and physical elements (screenplay, sets, cameras, costumes, lighting). Package unit production has increased economic risk because making film as a commercial venture does not have the safety cushion provided by studios in the past.[7] Moreover, since studios now function as distributors rather than producers, they are more likely to pick up projects with the minimum of risk.

Further, studios no longer exist as independent entities but are part of media conglomerates that have interests in television, the Internet, journalism, the recording industry, and cable. These media conglomerates seek balance among their various subsidiaries and thus seek projects that can cross over these various media and ancillary markets.

Wyatt has also highlighted media conglomerates’ dependence on market research, particularly of the quantitative and empirical kind, before making decisions about which film projects to undertake. These marketing executives tend to come primarily from advertising. Thus they

Their reliance on quantifiable data makes it hard for them see the value in prospective undertakings that are more innovative, complex and emphasize the visual or aural (rather than narrative) aspects of cinema.

Producers now tend to look more favorably at script treatments for blockbusters. This preference for blockbusters derives from an innovation in distribution that began in the 70s with the initiation of “four walling,” a system ironically pioneered by a low budget film, Billy Jack (1971). Four walling depends on intensely promoting the film in all possible channels and saturating the market to create the highest possible public awareness in a film’s opening weekend. This includes leasing all the theaters in a particular region and extensively using TV advertising.

The logic is that if distributors can pack in audiences in the first week, they will reduce the risks of losing future audiences on account of poor word-of-mouth. As Dan Ackerman writes, this economic goal also depends on the fact that studios take 70% of their box-office receipts in the first week of a film’s release.[8] In succeeding weeks, the studio’s percentage is generally reduced to about 30%. Fredrick Wasser cites MPAA figures to show that while U.S. spending on advertising increased significantly in the years 1981-94 movie advertising grew at nearly twice the general advertising rate (167). Increased costs like this further diminish the economic risks that producers are willing to take.

According to studio estimates Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone set a box office record in the first three days of its release, earning $93.5 million in tickets (Dan Ackman). This surpassed the three-day record set in 1997 by The Lost World: Jurassic Park of $72.1 million. Harry Potter’s success derives from its marketing strategy and saturating theaters the first week of a film’s release. The movie opened in 3,672 theaters with 8,200 screens, about one out of every four screens in the U.S. Most theaters played Harry Potter on more than one screen. In contrast Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace had played only on about 5000 screens in its opening weekend, for which it raked in $65 million (Dan Ackman).

Significantly Harry Potter had become a household name by the time of the film’s release, giving distributors a major pre-sold component to rely on: the book. Time Warner optioned the book shortly after its British publication in 1997 but before it became a smash hit. Since then Harry Potter has been planned as a franchise. Subsequently, the literary sequels have had success, and the original novel continues to perform as number one on Amazon. At this point, it is hard to separate literary success from the marketing campaigns that surround the whole project. Publishers released the books, especially the sequels, with elaborate marketing campaigns designed as hide-and-go-seek games between consumers and book retailers.

For instance, the fourth book’s release, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, relied on a highly publicized secret (an oxymoron) campaign. Publishing records were noisily broadcast: 3.8 million first copies were printed in the U.S. and a million more in Britain. Warehouses were bristling with security. Booksellers were forbidden from unpacking books before midnight while at the same time Amazon.com promised online buyers a Saturday delivery of the first 50,000 book orders. Even the business contract with the Fed Ex Corporation became part of the advertising campaign with the shipping company calling the order for the Harry Potter book the “largest single day distribution event in the history of business to consumer e-commerce.”[9] Not to be outdone, Barnes and Noble’s Internet site also promised Saturday delivery to orders placed before Friday 11 A.M. the preceding day.

Bookstores planned Harry Potter parties and other gimmicks to lure customers, including opening their doors at midnight. On the morning of the book’s release, media lined up to interview those waiting to buy the books, with reporters and TV crews sometimes equaling or outnumbering the latter. The release also included photo opportunities for adults and children to pose in Harry Potter garb. This last promotional strategy continued with the release of the film. In Carbondale, Illinois, where I live, both children and adults could don Harry Potter costume and have their photos taken at the entrance of the theater.

The time in between the release of the fourth and fifth book saw two quick spinoffs of the book itself: Rowling’s Quidditch through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Reviews on Amazon already claimed that these thin books, marketed to look like Hogwart’s textbooks annotated with Harry’s comments, would become collectors items. Written in the dull style of school textbooks, the two books’ appeal can only be explained as a result of advertising. Promoters could now rely on self-selection of Harry Potter fans into a marketable subculture among. Among these fans, a history of Quidditch has become a lingua franca. However, Amazon.com’s promote also indicates the widespread acknowledgement of the commodification of childhood nostalgia. That is, here children were encouraged to buy with a future collectible market in mind.

Besides the book, promotion relied on other aspects of commodity culture to prepare the audience for the film‘s release. Development and advertising campaigns for computer and video games were afoot in July 2000, almost sixteen months prior to the film’s release. As Electronic Arts Inc. acquired the license to develop these games, it claimed in its publicity to be working closely with Christopher Columbus and J.K. Rowling. Previously in 1999 Electronic Arts had signed a five-year agreement with AOL to deliver online games and interactive entertainment for AOL’s nineteen million users. The subsequent merger of AOL and Time Warner provided Electronic Arts a good opportunity to piggyback on Potter’s name already in circulation.
The film accordingly gained widespread advertisement on the media subsidiaries held by AOL Time Warner, such as its television channels, WB, Cartoon Network, and CNN. The conglomerate’s magazines including Time, Entertainment Weekly, and People carried articles on the movie and on Rowling. Rowling’s personal story, a single mom struggling on welfare when she wrote the book, is exactly the kind of rags to riches stories so favored by capitalism. Time magazine, including its children’s section, carried articles on Harry Potter, including a cover story titled “Wild about Harry” way back in September 20, 1999, shortly after the book was optioned.
Typical of other commercial children’s films, Harry Potter found its way into other forms of children’s commodity culture. Mattel has held the license for Harry Potter toys. It sells action figures ranging from $9.99 for the smaller plastic figures to $119 for the larger ones, such as, Harry Potter battling the mountain troll. Tiger Electronics, also under license, produced alarm clocks with talking portraits (inspired by the moving portraits in the film) and a book of spells. Other paraphernalia include a Harry Potter Trivia game, a board game, costumes, and puzzles. Scholastic Paperbacks, publishers of the Harry Potter series, has come out with Harry Potter journals, stationery kit, and even Hogwarts crests. By the time of the film’s release, the marketing muggles had ensured that only those in a comatose state had not heard of Harry Potter.

Continued: Novella into film


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