Warner Bros., the studio behind the "Harry Potter" blockbusters, could find itself in an awkward position when author J.K. Rowling lets the black cat out of the bag next month about the ultimate fate of her characters.
Ten days after the fifth installment, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," hits theaters July 11, the world will know what happens to the bespectacled boy wizard and the rest of his Hogwarts gang with the release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," Rowling's seventh and final book in the series.
Last year Rowling revealed in interviews that she would kill off two characters, and that one character "got a reprieve," never acknowledging whether Harry is among them. Potter fans have been rigorously debating on Web sites whether the British author will dare terminate the beloved star of what has become the biggest-selling series in literary history.
Box office effects
Warner doesn't expect any spoilers to hurt box office sales of its upcoming film. Indeed, the flurry of publicity surrounding the release of a new movie and book could feed off each other.
But there are still two more "Harry Potter" sequels to go over the next three years. So could knowing how it all ends dissuade moviegoers from turning out to see them?
Warner President Alan Horn said he's not worried.
"Whatever happens to Harry Potter, I would not anticipate it hurting the movie or future movies in any way," he said.
Horn said that four months before the fourth film, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" was released in 2005, moviegoers had already learned that in Rowling's sixth book that Albus Dumbledore - headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry - had died.
"And, he was a beloved character," Horn said.
Horn also noted that James Cameron's 1997 "Titanic" was a blockbuster even though virtually everyone knows the luxury liner sank, killing most of its passengers. And, Horn said, fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" knew the ending of the author's trilogy, but still turned out in force for the films.
"Harry Potter" has been a global juggernaut for the studio. Worldwide, the first four movies have grossed $3.5 billion and sold 167 million DVD and VHS units.
Warner and parent Time Warner Inc. also amassed hundreds of millions more in profits from television, videogame and merchandising sales, such as a Lego Hogwarts Castle that retails at $89.99. Three weeks ago, Warner struck a major licensing deal with Universal Orlando Resort for a $200 million-plus Harry Potter theme park attraction in Florida that is expected to open in late 2009.
According to Rowling's U.S. publisher, Scholastic Inc., the books have sold 325 million copies in 200 countries in 65 languages. Of that total, 54.5 million were sold in the U.S. alone. The initial release of Rowling's upcoming book in the U.S. is 12 million copies - the largest in publishing history.
On the movie front, Warner is already laying plans for its final two films. Horn said "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe, who started the series at 11 and turns 18 next month, remains committed to continuing in his role.
The sixth "Potter" is set to begin production in September for release in November 2008. The seventh film is scheduled for theaters either in the summer or fall of 2010.
Daun Taubin, Warner's domestic marketing president, said that while devoted Potter fans, including her 15-year-old daughter, are sad that Rowling's popular fantasy stories are coming to an end, they can take solace that there's life beyond the books.
"The movies allow the stories to live on," Taubin said. "So, fans can relive the experience in a different way."
Diane Nelson, who has overseen "Harry Potter" brand management at Warner for the past eight years, said fans have always known much of the story lines and which characters die before they've seen it on the screen, and that hasn't lessened their enthusiasm for the movies.
In the past, Rowling has offed key characters, including Hufflepuff Quidditch captain Cedric Diggory and Sirius Black from the once notable Wizard family. Many readers were upset about Dumbledore's death scene on top of the Astronomy tower, with some devotees still insisting that he may have faked his own death and will return in the final book.
As for Harry himself, Rowling has never said whether he will survive.
At mugglenet.com, a Web site devoted to all things Harry Potter, more than 42,250 messages have been posted dissecting the seventh and final novel. More than 1,100 messages alone have been posted under the discussion titled: "Will Harry die in Deathly Hollows?"
The answers tackle every possible scenario - Harry dying, Harry coming back, Harry losing his powers, Harry marrying Ginny.
Horn said even he has no idea what the new book has in store for Harry, but is confident fans will like it.
"Jo Rowling is a brilliant writer," he said. "Whatever she does with Harry Potter will be dramatically powerful."