At first glance, the new Harry Potter prequel “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” hardly seems tailor-made for Chinese audiences, especially given its elements of witchcraft and the supernatural — which can be a deal breaker for China’s state censors.
But nearly 20 million people have purchased Chinese versions of J.K. Rowling’s novels about the boy wizard since they were first available across the Pacific 16 years ago. And hordes of adoring fans propelled the last Harry Potter film, 2011’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2,” to $60.8 million at the Chinese box office, back when the country’s total theatrical gross was about $2 billion. To put that in perspective, the Chinese box office finished 2016 at nearly $7 billion.
Although it’s been five years since the last movie, Potter-mania hasn’t waned. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” the eighth book in the series — and a script for a London stage play — quickly sold out its initial 300,000 copy print run when it became available for preorder in China in late September.
That’s why Warner Bros.’ is counting on “Fantastic Beasts,” the first “Harry Potter” film since “Deathly Hallows Part 2,” to be a monster at the Chinese box office, which could really use one after its worst slump in five years amid a dearth of bankable hits and a reduction of online ticketing subsidies.
The film, a prequel set in 1920s New York, opens there on Nov. 25, one week after its stateside debut. To ramp up the anticipation, all eight “Harry Potter” films were screened at last June’s Shanghai International Film Festival.
Rowling’s novels showed up at a time when Chinese children’s literature was relatively underdeveloped — and wound up building a fan base of all ages. Millions of Chinese have now grown up reading “Harry Potter,” and passed that love to younger family members.
That popularity translated to the big screen, even when China’s movie market was just a fraction of the size it is today.
“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” hit the country’s theaters on Nov. 18, 2005 – the same date it did in the U.S. – and went on to make $11.5 million, back when the entire country’s theatrical gross totaled just $248 million. That’s nearly 5 percent of the country’s entire box office for the year.
The box office steadily grew as the Chinese exhibition business did. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” hit China’s theaters on Aug. 11, 2007 — about a month after it premiered in the U.S. and most other countries — and reeled in $19.4 million. “Deathly Hallows — Part 1” was hit China in November 2010, and made $33.3 million at the country’s multiplexes.
“Fantastic Beasts” should reap the benefits of a demographic sweet spot. China’s movie audience skews younger than North America’s, which has helped propel relatively kid-friendly fare like “Zootopia” to $236 million at the Chinese box office. “Harry Potter” has fans of all ages, but its widespread appeal — and years of anticipation — should only help get Chinese fans to the theater in a country where the average person still sees about one movie a year.
That would be a big deal for Warner Bros., which has had a resurgent 2016 overall, placing second among studios by market share — but had some letdowns in China. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” failed to crack the $100 million mark and “Suicide Squad” couldn’t even secure a China release. “Fantastic Beasts” should give the studio a happy ending.
But it’s not just Warner Bros. counting on a schoolboy wizard to boost fortunes: one of its main film competitors is also banking on Harry Potter as it tries to distinguish itself in China’s increasingly competitive amusement park sector.
Comcast’s NBCUniversal, which holds the theme park rights to the franchise, is currently developing a Beijing theme park set to open in 2019 and challenge Shanghai Disneyland Park. The new park will almost certainly have its own “Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” a park-within-a-park that has boosted revenue at Universal Studios Florida by 30 percent year over year.
The theme park space in China is getting increasingly crowded. Shanghai Disneyland Park opened last summer and has already attracted 4 million visitors.
Meanwhile, Dalian Wanda Group, the aggressive media conglomerate owned by China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, announced plans to spend $15 billion on a new theme park and several malls. Wang has pledged to make Shanghai Disneyland Park “unprofitable in the coming two decades.”
As Warner Bros. knows well, China’s lucrative box office can be a tough puzzle to crack. Sometimes it just takes a wizard.