‘Fantastic Beasts’: Fourth and Fifth Movies in Limbo

“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” a $200 million-budgeted sequel in the “Harry Potter” spinoff series, is an anomaly in JK Rowling’s Wizarding World. With just $405 million at the global box office, it’s the first film in the blockbuster franchise — out of 11 — to just barely break even in its theatrical run.

The reality that “Fantastic Beasts” is experiencing diminishing returns after three movies is especially painful, not only to Rowling, who envisioned the prequel story as a five-film franchise, but also to its backer Warner Bros., which bet big on the assumption that all things Hogwarts would remain relevant at the box office — whether or not Harry, Ron and Hermione were involved in the adventures that unfold on screen.

Yet that has not been the case. Though the second installation, 2018’s “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” didn’t entirely sputter with $654 million at the worldwide box office, its rocky performance put the future of Newt Scamander — the protagonist played by Eddie Redmayne — and company in question. Ticket sales were down 20% from 2016’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” which grossed more than $800 million globally.

There wasn’t yet a screenplay for the fourth or fifth entry by April 2022, when the third “Fantastic Beasts” movie opened in theaters. Executives at Warner Bros. were waiting to see the reception toward “The Secrets of Dumbledore” before pumping resources into the final chapters in the magical saga. Unlike the original eight-film “Potter” franchise, which was adapted from a rich, doorstop of novels, Rowling only has flimsy source material for “Fantastic Beasts.” So, although the spinoff story was barreling toward the full-scale Wizarding War that’s waged between beloved Hogwarts professor Albus Dumbledore and the Voldemort-esque Gellert Grindelwald (you don’t need to be a fan of “Harry Potter” to know how the battle ends), Rowling and Steve Kloves — who co-wrote “The Secrets of Dumbledore” — don’t have a clearly established blueprint to reach the grand conclusion.

Months later, Warner Bros. doesn’t seem to be prioritizing another chapter in the “Fantastic Beasts” universe. With “Dune” and “Wonder Woman 1984,” two recent Warner Bros. tentpoles, the studio waited only a few days after those movies were released to announce plans for sequels. So, the curious silence on another “Fantastic Beasts” chapter isn’t exactly encouraging. It’s worth noting, though, that “The Secrets of Dumbledore” opened around the same time as the Warner Bros. Motion Pictures group was enduring a regime change, one that saw the exit of chief Toby Emmerich and ascension of former MGM film presidents Michael De Luca and Pamela Abdy.

Warner Bros., as well as representatives for Rowling, declined to comment.

Unless the “Fantastic Beasts” filmmaking team manages to get cameras rolling in the next six months — and that seems unlikely since there’s still no screenplay in existence — the fourth movie wouldn’t be released until 2025 at the earliest. There was a longer gap between the second and third movies, which came out four years apart, but the “Harry Potter” fandom isn’t getting any younger. That’s a problem, especially since the spinoff stories aren’t appealing to new muggles, as evidenced by lower and lower ticket sales for subsequent installations.

There’s also less incentive to put time, energy and money in the already-struggling series because, well, Rowling has become increasingly controversial for her repeated comments against transgender women. The studio has been clear it doesn’t want out of the billion-dollar relationship, but heightened sensitivity around the contentious author means Warners is going to be selective about projects it needs her to promote.

And it’s not like the movie theater landscape has been forgiving in the COVID era. Even acclaimed big-budget blockbusters have failed to generate the kind of coinage they were expected to make in pre-pandemic times, as China and Russia, two major film markets, are almost entirely closed off to Hollywood films. That makes any $200 million budgeted tentpole a riskier proposition than ever.

Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav hinted on a recent earnings call about the potential to do “something” with Rowling on another story in the Wizarding World franchise “going forward.” However, he stopped short of specifics. An obvious choice would be turning to the stage show “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which picks up directly after the epilogue in “Deathly Hallows” and centers on Harry, Ron, Hermione and their children. Adding to potential fervor: it’s not out of the realm of possibilities to ask the original cast to reprise their roles. Warner Bros. is an investor in the Tony-winning play, but Rowling owns the rights to “Cursed Child,” so the big-screen version requires the author’s approval.

Given the lackluster reception to the three movies in existence, it may not be surprising that Warner Bros. has yet to definitely say whether the fourth and fifth “Fantastic Beasts” films will be completed as intended. But the state of limbo is still unexpected considering “Harry Potter” has been positioned as one of two flagship franchises (DC Comics is the other) to prop up the Warner Bros. feature film strategy at a time when big-budget properties reign supreme at the box office.

Presumably, that means the company has little choice but to devote outsized attention to DC Studios, which is newly headed by filmmaker James Gunn and producer Peter Safran. But DC’s film output hasn’t matched the consistency or popularity of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. Of course, the idea is that Gunn and Safran will right the ship. Realistically, though, it could take years to build a successful slate of superhero stories.

In the meantime, it may take a little more than magic — and a lot of Liquid Luck — to find an enchanting way to revive the Potterverse on the big screen.

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