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The Harry Potter Spinoff Series is Off to a Slow Start

By  · Published on November 21st, 2016

Another soft reboot of a franchise tries to find sturdy ground.

Box office analysts are in disagreement on the success of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and once again the spin depends on how you see things. Deadline claims the movie’s $74m opening in the US is not a great start for a series with four sequels already announced, but the New York Times considers the Harry Potter spinoff/prequel a hit considering the difficulty of continuing a franchise without the original hero.

It’s true, the opening weekend domestic gross of Fantastic Beasts is much less than every other Harry Potter movie. The closest installments seem to be 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which debuted with $77m, though that’s $96m in today’s dollars. And Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which opened in 2009 with $78m, really took in something like $90m when that number is adjusted for inflation.

Interestingly, those were the first two Harry Potter installments helmed by David Yates, who also directed both parts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (each much, much higher in their debuts: $134m and $183m) and now this new effort. Before he took over, the franchise’s openings were consistently as follows: $137m for Sorcerer’s Stone, $131m for Chamber of Secrets, $130m for Prisoner of Azkaban, and $138m for Goblet of Fire.

But as the Times suggests, there was a great challenge to Fantastic Beasts compared to the rest. The movie is not based on a story fans had already read and knew and needed to see play out on the big screen. From its start, the original Harry Potter series had a built-in awareness for its characters, plot, etc. due to the popular books that came before and during its run. As the franchise grew, the fanbase also extended to people only familiar with the brand through movies, and they became just as invested as the readers.

Warner Bros. is almost starting over here, while also starting relatively fresh. Much of the main Harry Potter fanbase knew enough to be excited about the offshoot, but how much was the general audience aware? Did the marketing do enough to sell Fantastic Beasts as a Harry Potter movie? Should it have been titled Fantastic Beasts: A Harry Potter Story? Should the ads have made more of the point by name-dropping Potter instead of author J.K. Rowling?

Instead of looking at the other Harry Potter movies as comparison, it might be better to look at other franchises with reboot, prequel, and spinoff ventures. Two weeks ago, we explored the ups and downs of the Marvel Cinematic Universe debuts, noting that anytime a new superhero is introduced with a fresh start within the mega franchise, the numbers are much lower than the series’ sequels and crossovers. Well, isn’t Fantastic Beasts’ Newt Scamander just the Doctor Strange to Potter’s Iron Man?

There is no exact precedent to compare better to Fantastic Beasts, actually, as most reboots and spinoffs at least involve a titling scheme acknowledging the brand name and characters that audiences know and are drawn to, but here are some fairly relevant cases, all using figures adjusted for inflation:

The first three X-Men movies rose incrementally: X-Men with $87m, X2 with $122m, and X-Men: The Last Stand with$135m. Then the franchise went in a prequel-based soft reboot direction with X-Men: First Class, and that arrived with only $59m on opening weekend. And that at least involved many of the same title and characters, just recast. Eventually things picked back up, though, with the next X-Men movie, Days of Future Past, opening to $94m before this year’s X-Men: Apocalypse dropped to $65m.

As for X-Men spinoffs, X-Men Origins: Wolverine arrived between the original X-Men trilogy and First Class with a slight dip from the main series with $98m. Then, because audiences didn’t like that movie, The Wolverine opened only with $58m. Phenomenally, however, Deadpool hit big immediately with its character spinoff/reboot, despite the character also appearing in Origins, taking in close to a franchise best of $132m.

Star Wars is a tricky one, because the original trilogy ($6m for A New Hope, $16m for The Empire Strikes Back, and $63m for Return of the Jedi) opened on few screens and also became the monster hits we know them as today because they stayed in theaters for a long time and returned to theaters for re-releases before home video was an easy option for fans. So the first of the prequels, The Phantom Menace, did open much higher ($110m), and that trilogy increased with the subsequent two installments ($119m for Attack of the Clones and $146m for Revenge of the Sith).

But now we can compare it to The Force Awakens ($245m), which did remarkably better, possibly in part because it brought back the original trilogy’s lead actors reprising their roles. What will be interesting to see is how this year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story compares to that, given it is more of a spinoff, albeit with that “Star Wars Story branding and some major characters, particularly Darth Vader, returning again. Maybe Fantastic Beasts needed Voldemort?

Back to another Warner Bros. fantasy franchise, when Peter Jackson returned to Middle Earth for The Hobbit, there was a dip compared to the Lord of the Rings finale, and the less-popular prequel series just kept going downward. Those three Hobbit movies opened, in order, with $91m for An Unexpected Journey, $76m for The Desolation of Smaug, and $57m for The Battle of the Five Armies, while the original three LOTR trilogy debuted, in order, with $72m for The Fellowship of the Ring, $92m for The Two Towers, and $104m for Return of the King. Again, it helped there were returning characters, and the prequel was also based on a classic piece of literature.

The best example might be with the Batman brand. After doing well in the ’80s and ’90s with numbers, in order, of $88m for Batman, $95m for Batman Returns, $104m for Batman Forever, and $80m for Batman and Robin – already dropping there at the end, Christopher Nolan came in with a resurrection of the Caped Crusader and… only $65m for Batman Begins. Fortunately, people liked what Nolan was doing and the next two in the trilogy debuted with much higher grosses of $190m for The Dark Knight and $178m for The Dark Knight Rises.

More recently, Batman returned again in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and that opened slightly lower with $167m (it also followed up the $120m debut of the DC Extended Universe starter Man of Steel), and then he made a helpful cameo in Suicide Squad, which otherwise could have been a spinoff of Fantastic Beasts proportions, for an opening gross of $135m. Logic would have it that the upcoming The Batman, with the already introduced Ben Affleck version of the character, will hit bigger on its opening weekend.

The worst example in terms of making a case for Fantastic Beasts is the Alien franchise, which has never had the grandest opening weekend grosses. Even when ignoring the oldest installments being from a time of fewer screens, Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection took in only $40m and $31m, respectively. The first Alien vs. Predator crossover opened better with $53m, and the prequel-reboot, Prometheus, which has no brand recognition in its title nor any of the original characters, or aliens, debuted with a franchise best of $54m to start.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review: Of Warmth and Craftsmanship

Whether or not these examples seem to spell out a modest if any improvement going forward, the fact is that audiences who went to see Fantastic Beasts enjoyed it, with a CinemaScore of A (with an A-plus among younger moviegoers). And the sequel will be bringing back an original series character, Albus Dumbledore. If more people discover the first movie’s charms (that’s mainly to mean its Niffler) as its theatrical run continues or later on video, the franchise should look safer with Fantastic Beasts 2.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.