J.K. Rowling wrote a new short story set in the Harry Potter universe and posted it to Pottermore this week, which must have spiked password reminder requests for Pottermore by something like 10,000%. The story was an instance of my not knowing how much I wanted a thing until I had it. It's not even that good of a story - it's not even a story, really - but a paragraph or two into it, and I was taken straight back.
Rowling, in the meanwhile, is writing the new Harry Potter feature film franchise, the first of a trilogy set in the Potterverse, some 70 years prior to the events of the existing film/book series. I've no idea what incented her to do this - she has the money, i.e. all of it, already - so I choose to believe that Rowling is just one of those genuinely impassioned people who do what they do because they love it. The short story this week is further proof along those lines (though the resulting Pottermore user growth probably didn't hurt either).
For Warner Brothers, of course, the value of projects such as these is more plain. Through lateral expansion in spinoff movies and [whatever Pottermore is - a video game? A social network? A very complicated e-book?], Warner can make a play for the mega-franchise space with its Harry Potter universe, along the same lines as Disney's Marvel and Star Wars mega-franchises.
Given that the Potter brace has brought in north of seven and a half billion dollars in box office revenue alone, further expansion was a matter of when, not if. Rowling's involvement in building a new platform, though, gives the new development the kind of security that money can't buy.
The summer of 2014 has been quiet at the box office. The July 4th weekend was the weakest in something like 30 years of American moviegoing (when adjusted for inflation). This summer has seen the critical lack of a mega-hit breakaway tentpole along the lines of an Iron Man 3 or Despicable Me 2, and it shows in the receipts.
When you look at the tentpoles, it's a mild summer by any yardstick. There are no clear champs. It's as though the industry is holding its breath, waiting for the next big thing; and in a way, it is.
I believe we're in the chasm between two tectonic plates right now, as Hollywood moves away from one way of making blockbusters - franchises - and moves into the next one, the aforementioned mega-franchise era. For the cream of Hollywood's crop, a stream of roman numerals after reiterative movie sequels (call it the Rocky model) no longer generates sufficient market share; even the old notion of "cross-platform" multi-media doesn't quite skin the cat as effectively as Marvel, the prototype for all of this, has done.
No, the game now is to take brand identification and run with it, not just to multiple platforms, but to parallel initiatives within the same platform, all of them cross-wired like a badly jerry-rigged Christmas tree. Sure, you run the risk that pulling out one bulb will douse the whole string - but when it works, that tree glows brightest.
How will Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them be marketed, I wonder? It can't be called Harry Potter: Fantastic Beasts; Harry Potter isn't in the thing. (Maybe they can shoot a wraparound sequence for the movie, featuring an elder Harry going through his treasure trunk and telling the story of Newt Scamander to little Albus Severus Potter. Peter Jackson used the same trick to glue The Hobbit trilogy to The Lord of the Rings, and if the new scenes hadn't been shot in HFR, it might have worked.)
But Harry Potter, with or without Harry himself, is a brand, and by use of font or music or recurring characters or something else, Warner Brothers will endeavour to communicate to audiences some message along the lines of "from the universe of that other thing you liked," and thereby build their mega-franchise.
However they do it, though, the effect will be the same: where there was once a single film (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone) and now a back-catalogue (the 8-film Harry Potter saga), there will now be a neo-trilogy set in the 1930s whose primary profit value will be driven by it not being a saga, but rather an episode - a kind of proof-of-concept wherein we learn that a whole bunch of interesting shit has happened in Harry Potter's world, and that we could consequently make a movie (or a TV show, or a video game, or whatever Pottermore is) about any of it.
"IT ALL ENDS," proclaimed the posters for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II, exaggerating reports of its franchise's demise. Never again will any marketing dare suggest that its property belongs to a finite universe.
I admit I am quite a fan of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic books written (initially) by Joss Whedon as a licensed continuation of the TV franchise; but I admit I also quickly became apprehensive about a world where narratives are no longer given license to end. As soap operas have capably demonstrated for half a century, stories with no foreseeable boundary points are the ultimate acts of meaninglessness.
A tale is defined by its ending. Even television, the great serialist, has lately gotten the message. Mega-franchises, though, will be defined by their endlessness. Each episode or vignette may be self-contained and resolved on its own terms, but the landscape will always continue, with another story waiting to start.
The upside? Richer worlds. Immense, possibly infinite, scaleability. Storytelling universes whose fanbases could, theoretically, be served ad nauseum ad infinitum. Money. Lots of it.
The downside? Less worlds, and probably, fewer new ones. A battle of behemoths; Destroy All Monsters! in the movie brand space.
And, I fear, the end of endings; the end of stakes; the end of all our ability to grapple with change, and resolution, and moving on to something else, which is part of what stories have always given us the articulation to do. Imagination and empathy capitalized and capped off, like an exhausted oil well.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and taking a summer break from twitter.