We're eight months away from concluding the phenomenally successful Harry Potter movie franchise but already the question must be asked:
What's the next book series that Hollywood can translate into that sort of box office bonanza?
Producers have wondered for years, trying to emulate the Potter windfall by trotting out fantasies based on popular books among children and young adults. Two Chronicles of Narnia movies, Eragon, Percy Jackson's neo-Greek mythology, Lemony Snicket and The Golden Compass haven't managed the feat.
Only the Narnia introduction spawned a sequel, and that franchise is on the ropes with a third — and likely final — movie due Dec. 10.
"As a franchise, Harry Potter hit upon a very unique combination of elements that led to its success," said Jen Yamato, 29, a blogger for several movie websites, including Film.com. "All the potential franchises that followed have failed in one or more of those elements."
Yamato lists a younger-than-usual, devoted reading audience as a key factor to Potter-sized success.
"We've seen other (movies) based on children and young adult novels," she said. "None had the dedicated fan base of Harry Potter … a wide demographic that spans children and adults, male and female. That built a groundswell of anticipation, even before the first film came out.
"Properties like Lemony Snicket, The Golden Compass and the Narnia books have dedicated fans that didn't translate into box office in a sustained way."
Yamato added that readership won't matter if an inaugural adaptation is a flop, or simply fails to impress.
"Your first film has to be a hit with the fans, and make its production budget back," Yamato said. "Lemony Snicket made a decent box office showing but hard-core fans of the books felt a little cheated. The film wasn't as faithful as they wanted it to be. Golden Compass was handsomely made (for an estimated $180 million) but the reviews killed its chances of continuing with sequels."
The failure of Percy Jackson and the Olympians can be attributed to another variable: It played like a Harry Potter clone, down to the rhythmic similarities of the heroes' names, and casting Percy with Logan Lerman, who resembles Daniel Radcliffe.
"What turned off audiences was that Percy Jackson seemed so similar to Harry Potter," Yamato said. "It really seemed like they were actively trying to copy the formula. They even got Chris Columbus to direct, after he did the first two Harry Potter films. It seemed too close, too transparent an effort."
So, what book-to-film projects does Yamato view as potential heirs to Harry's throne?
"A few titles are being buzzed about," she said. "One is a fantasy/sci-fi novel called Incarceron, written by Catherine Fisher. It's a sprawling fantasy about a prison world and two young characters, one inside and one outside. (Fox 2000) already optioned the rights to the book, and a sequel is on the way.
"However, I'm putting more stock in a three-book series called The Hunger Games, about a teenage girl in a post-apocalyptic world who's drafted to fight in a televised battle to the death. It's very violent, actually, but (Lionsgate is) intending it to be a PG-13 adventure. Children who grew up with Harry Potter are at the age now when those dark elements are attractive."
Both Incarceron and The Hunger Games are in early stages of development. It will be 2013 at least before knowing if either recaptures that Harry Potter magic. Yamato doesn't know if that's even possible:
"I'm not sure that any franchise on the horizon can repeat and sustain that kind of momentum for eight movies, ever again."
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs.movies.