Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Hype and Harry Potter are old friends.

Just last July, the fourth installment of J.K. Rowling’s children’s-book series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was marked by midnight lines at the cash register, a phenomenon usually associated with hot toys and software launches. According to Salon’s calculation, Goblet of Fire’s take that first weekend was the equivalent of a $59 million opening-weekend gross for a movie.

Of course, Warner Bros.’ film version of the first volume, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which went into production as Goblet was roiling the publishing world, will easily eclipse that. Indeed, the word has gone out from the sneak previews and exhibitor screenings, and that word is “Titanic.” In a lackluster retail Halloween season, Harry Potter action figures, puzzles, games and trading cards have been selling briskly. Lego is increasing production on its Hogwarts castle and express train sets. As October drew to a close, a reported 200,000 advance tickets to the movie had been sold in the U.K. And that was before the pre-release London premiere last Sunday, which left 12 Harry-hype-filled days before the movie’s Nov. 16 release.

Much has been said of the marketing firepower AOL Time Warner brings to the launch of the film. Here was the chance to show the synergistic strength of this great conglomerate, as its many tentacles beat the drum for the movie. The irony is that Harry Potter, with its millions of pre-sold devotees, is one property that doesn’t need it. It is the mediocre, formulaic junk that needs multimedia, cross-promotional steroids to pump up its opening weekends. As long as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone doesn’t stink-and the buzz suggests it doesn’t-it would be a hit for whoever produced and marketed it.

In fact, all things being relative, the promotion of Harry Potter has been positively restrained. For that we can thank, in part, “millionaire author Rowling,” as she is now routinely referred to in the press, who was anxious not to overcommercialize her creation, thereby preserving its credibility for the sequels. Credit also goes to the licensees. Not long ago they found themselves stuck with truckloads of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace tchotchkes not worth the plastic they were extruded from, and were determined not to be burned again.

In any event, Warner Bros. made deals with only 90 licensing partners, less than half the number that sign with the average blockbuster. They are releasing 700 products, as opposed to the usual 1,000 or so. There are no fast-food figurines. The movie has a single sponsor, Coke, which paid $150 million for the privilege and isn’t even allowed to put Harry on its soda cans or in its ads. Nor will the soft drink appear in the movie, which makes Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry one of the few educational institutions left without a Coke machine.

So we are spared the media onslaught from multiple sponsors that usually accompanies a blockbuster wannabe. And, of course, the strange times we live in play a big role, too. News channels that would normally devote hours to this release have their hands full flogging the threat of anthrax. The movie remains a huge entertainment story; it’s just that all entertainment stories seem smaller these days.

In happier times, occasions like the premiere of a megamovie did duty as historical events. In a safe world where nothing much happened and history was reduced to one long, triumphant procession of product introductions and branding campaigns, people found the significance they craved in trivial places. Millions marked their days by the Star Wars sequels. The end of Seinfeld doubled as the end of an era, if not of civilization as we knew it. The publication of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire drew thousands to bookstores in the dead of night. What motivates people to such acts of devotion but a desire to play a role in something larger than themselves, something epic-making? If history does not provide us with world-shaking events, we make do with what we have.

These days, no one would claim that the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a defining moment of our times. It’s only a movie, a diversion. But then, diversion has never been more necessary, precisely because it is an escape from momentous events rather than a substitute for them. My guess is the movie will be one of the cultural beneficiaries of our trauma, along with familiar sitcoms, comfort food and the CIA. Fortunately for AOL Time Warner, Harry Potter doesn’t have to change the world in order to become the blockbuster of its dreams.