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"Harry Potter' film franchise could use a little magic

Now that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has scared up monstrous box office numbers, just like the first movie, here's how the plot thickens in coming episodes:

Warner Bros. has been forced to hire a new director for the third installment. The original director burned out after the breakneck pace of back-to-back productions. The planned release date has been delayed because the parents of the real-life Harry wanted him to attend a prestigious school rather than being tutored on the set.

Meanwhile, the fourth J.K. Rowling adventure book is so fat _ 734 pages _ no one is sure it can be shaped into one movie without slicing scenes, which could alienate the protective author and her young readers. As for book No. 5, it's still in the works _ and even longer than No. 4.

On top of all this, the clock is ticking for the three young Potter stars, who are beginning to outgrow their roles, raising the dicey issue of whether adolescent audiences would embrace a new Harry, Ron and Hermione.

As successful as the Potter films have been, they also have become arguably the most complicated and uniquely unpredictable movie franchise undertaken.

No other long-running movie series _ not Star Wars, James Bond or Batman _ has been forced to juggle the competing interests of literary loyalty, artistic license and commercial considerations on such a grand scale.

Warner Bros. plans to make seven movies based on Rowling's completed and pending books about a bespectacled boy and his pals at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The studio got into the game early and cheaply. Just before the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, became an international sensation, Warner Bros. paid Rowling a meager $50,000 for the right to keep rivals at bay. The next year, the studio paid $500,000 more, this time to exercise its option to make a movie.

Since then, Sorcerer's Stone has generated an estimated $1.5-billion in revenue for the studio and its corporate parent, AOL Time Warner, from worldwide box office receipts and DVD, TV and merchandising sales. Chamber of Secrets appears headed down the same road to riches, grossing an estimated $87.7-million in North American theaters last weekend.

The initial plan was to maintain a production schedule that would allow the studio to release a movie every year. But No. 3 won't be out until 2004.

Production on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was delayed until February when the parents of leading boy Daniel Radcliffe, 13, told the studio their son had been accepted into a top-drawer school and they would like him to attend the first semester. The parents of co-star Emma Watson, 12, who plays precocious witch Hermione, wanted her to experience a real classroom, too.

Chris Columbus had planned to direct all seven Potter pictures. But last summer, halfway through shooting Chamber of Secrets, he told the studio he was too spent to even contemplate a third.

New director Alfonso Cuaron's biggest challenge for the third Potter movie may be out of his control.

The young stars were supposed to age one year with each movie, as the characters do in the books. But with production delayed, their ages will be out of sync by the third movie, a gap that is expected only to widen.

The child actors in the Potter franchise are perhaps unlike any others because they have given face to literary characters cherished by millions of readers.

It will be tricky enough to replace Professor Dumbledore, portrayed in the first two movies by Richard Harris, 72, who died last month. But the mere thought of replacing Harry or his closest cohorts is enough to unnerve Warner executives fearful of breaking the spell with fans.

At this point, Radcliffe, Watson and 14-year-old Rupert Grint, who plays Harry's sidekick Ron, are under contract for one more movie. They have not been asked to sign up for No. 4, studio president Alan Horn says, because production isn't slated to begin until spring 2004.

With so much money riding on the advancing ages of the children, pressure is mounting to keep the productions on track.

The studio only recently closed a deal with screenwriter Steve Kloves to begin adapting Rowling's lengthy fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. If Kloves can't figure out how to squeeze the material into one movie, the studio might have to make two, Horn says. And that would further distance the actors' real ages from those of their screen characters.

The status of Harry Potter No. 5 is even murkier, raising concerns about how long the series' momentum can be maintained. The studio had hoped Rowling would be done with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by last summer.

So when will it get a peek? "Zero idea," Horn says. He says that when he saw the author at the London premiere of Chamber of Secrets, "She didn't mention it, and I didn't ask."

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