I know I wasn’t alone in chuckling when the new Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav announced on an earnings call last week that he’d really like to do “something with J.K. on Harry Potter going forward,” noting that his film executives “haven’t done a Harry Potter movie in 15 years.” You don’t say! one rival exec texted, echoing a few calls I got from others on the Warners lot. People are terrible.
I know, earnings proclamations are general statements for investors, and Zaslav often talks in platitudes that can be easily understood by CNBC. So who cares if the last Potter movie was actually 11 years ago, or that Warners has since released three Fantastic Beasts movies based on J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, the first two of which she wrote the screenplays for herself? (Similarly, Zaz’s peer, Endeavor C.E.O. Ari Emanuel, boasted on his earnings call this week about client Keanu Reeves’ first TV show, Hulu’s Devil in the White City—a project Reeves fell out of last month.) But more importantly, to some at Warners, it was as if Zaslav’s focus on franchises in general, and Harry Potter in particular, hadn’t been the singular goal of just about every top executive at the company since the original Potter films ended in 2011. To them, it was déjà vu all over again.
In fact, other than managing DC, the primary job of running Warners ever since the studio and producer David Heyman secured the rights when the first Harry Potter book was published in 1997, has been about managing J.K. Rowling and her universe. Like many artists, she’s said to be mercurial and perpetually aggrieved; her behind-the-scenes battles with Barry Meyer and Alan Horn over creative and financial issues on the Potter movies were legendary; she’s renegotiated her deals many, many times; etc. And rightly so; Rowling alone created one of the singular pieces of intellectual property of all time, so no matter how much value Warner Bros. brought to the asset via films that have grossed more than $9 billion worldwide, she gets to control and leverage the I.P. as she chooses. Just as Warners does with the DC characters it owns.