Surrounded in scandal not only from the premature exit of actor Johnny Depp, who played series antagonist Gellert Grindelwald, but also of the controversial opinions of series creator and screenwriter J.K. Rowling, “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” might be the end of the line for the “Harry Potter” prequel series. With its box office is standing at a little over $330 million, it looks unlikely that this film will break even, let alone persuade Warner Bros. executives to greenlight a fourth film, which they reportedly were waiting on the performance of this film to make a final decision on.
“The Secrets of Dumbledore” had a lot working against it, from the aforementioned scandals that have dominated public discourse, especially as Depp’s ongoing U.S. public defamation trial against Amber Heard circulates, to the fact that its predecessor, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” was critically-panned and underperformed at the box office, garnering a series low haul before the coronavirus came into play.
COVID has also changed people’s moviegoing habits, with many people’s hometowns (including mine) having less theaters available to go to as some succumbed to the financial pressures of the virus, and many people just got used to not regularly going out to the theater due to the fact that early stages of lockdown forced them to close, and because many just didn’t want to risk it, especially before safe and effective vaccines were developed. It must also be said that many streaming platforms, such as HBO Max and Disney Plus, have rose to prominence since COVID hit — with both platforms chipping away at theaters’ exclusive access to new feature films by either offering same-day streaming options, or foregoing theaters altogether (like Disney Plus has done with the last few Pixar films). This has all created a landscape where huge must-see event films like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” can still succeed, and these will probably keep theaters afloat, but casual releases — like “Morbius” — can struggle to find a foothold.
It must be said that, while the box office is not what it used to be, especial for casual, throwaway films, it also is not a barren wasteland. “Morbius” is a good example of a studio setting earning expectations low, as they recognized that they did not have a huge blockbuster on their hands and as such, did not give in a bloated $200 million budget; and thus, “Morbius” ended up making as much money as it needed to in order to break even off its $75 million budget. It’s a lesson the Disney part of Marvel should take into account, especially as “Eternals” was barely able to double its $200 million budget, and “Black Widow” only made money when you add what it took home from Disney Plus Premiere Access fees (Note: The traditional rule of thumb is to assume a film’s ad spend, which is not public knowledge, is equal to its budget; thus a film needs to earn twice its budget to break even).
Warner made a huge mistake by pouring too much money into “The Secrets of Dumbledore”, though that was also on par with what they put into the first two films in the series. But on the decline, the series really needed a smash hit in its third film to remain relevant, especially considering the lack of public enthusiasm for the franchise not only because of the criticisms of “The Crimes of Grindelwald.” but also because of the bad press surrounding Depp’s recasting and Rowling’s perpetual troubles in the public eye.
“The Secrets of Dumbledore” was a vast improvement over its predecessor, but it failed to be the film that would save the franchise, as larger issues like the series’ overall lack of direction still persisted in it; unlike “Harry Potter,” “Fantastic Beasts” never feels like its going anywhere, which is a huge issues for a series that’s already on its third movie.
Being a prequel series, it also suffers from a supreme lack of stakes — we already know that Grindelwald causes his fair share of mayhem but is ultimately unsuccessful in achieving his larger goals, because we see that they have not come to fruition in “Harry Potter,” where he dies at the hands of that series’ big bad, Voldemort. It takes really good storytelling and excellent character writing to make a prequel series work — “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” and “Better Call Saul” are two great examples — and unfortunately “Fantastic Beasts” lacked both, and were unable to justify its sequels.
I think it would have been better if “Fantastic Beasts” had been contained to its first film as a one-off, followed up by other one-offs focusing on other aspects of Rowling’s Wizarding World. Its central gimmick — Newt Scamander’s obsession with cataloging magical beasts and collecting them — wears off after its first film, and is barely present by its third. Scamander feels like a side character in his own movie in “Secrets of Dumbledore,” because Rowling and Warner were clearly more interested with it being a “Harry Potter” prequel film than a film about him, as its focus is solely on young Albus Dumbledore, who everyone knows from the “Harry Potter” films, and Grindelwald, who functions as a prototype Voldemort.
With all this being said, there is still a clear way forward for the “Harry Potter” franchise even without the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise continuing, and that is by eventually adapting “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” the hit stageplay that served as a sequel to the “Harry Potter” series, set 13 years after “Deathly Hallows.” It’s been about 11 years since “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II” came out, and assuming “Cursed Child” is developed and shot over the course of a few years, it should be the exact right time for Warner to begin talking to the original “Harry Potter” cast to see who is willing to come back.
It is still to early to tell where Warner will take this franchise, but I have a strong feeling that we might see a “Cursed Child” trilogy — with “Fantastic Beasts” underperforming, I doubt Warner would be willing to commit to anything more than that. I also think that there is a high chance that a “Cursed Child” adaptation might only take light inspiration from the stageplay — there are a lot of bizarre creative choices in the play that Warner might want to avoid, especially if they want to tell a cohesive story told over the course of multiple films.