British author and screenwriter J.K. Rowling poses on arrival to attend the UK premiere of ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ in London on November 13, 2018.
TOLGA AKMEN | AFP | Getty Images
WarnerMedia owns the rights to one of the most powerful franchises in the world, but a series of controversial statements by the woman who created it threatens to tarnish the brand irrevocably.
The Harry Potter books have been a commercial hit since they were first published in 1997 and have become an important part of the cultural zeitgeist over the past two decades. The author J.K. Rowling has been publicly criticized in recent years for making comments on transgender men and women who were viewed as transphobic and depressing.
These utterances caused the very people who were once inspired by the Harry Potter novels and films against Rowling to temporarily decline book sales and threaten boycotts of future content.
These fans, including members of the LGBTQ community, helped the franchise raise more than $ 9 billion at the global box office over eight films and resulted in sales of more than 500 million copies of Rowling’s Harry- Potter books worldwide.
For months it has been speculated that WarnerMedia would use the franchise to boost registrations for its fledgling streaming service HBO Max. After all, Disney’s streaming platform Disney + has had great success in converting its blockbuster franchises Star Wars and Marvel to digital series.
Rumors spread that AT & T.HBO Max could start a TV show based on the books or turn Rowling’s co-written play “The Cursed Child” into a feature film.
However, WarnerMedia quickly picked up reports in January that a show was based on the beloved book series came to HBO Max.
Still, Jason Kilar, CEO of WarnerMedia, recently reaffirmed the company’s support for Potter. “There’s this little thing called Harry Potter, one of the most popular franchises,” Kilar said in a webcast session earlier this month during the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecommunications Conference. “And we’re incredibly grateful to be working with J.K. Rowling, and I’d say there is a lot of fun and potential there too.”
Kilar didn’t elaborate on this, but it is obvious that WarnerMedia would try to delve deeper into the wizarding world. The company began exploring this universe in its Fantastic Beasts film series in the decades before Harry Potter was born.
Still, there are two things that could stand in the way of these plans – Rowling and a 2016 licensing deal that gave NBCUniversal exclusive TV rights to the Harry Potter films.
Rowling’s comments on transgender men and women surfaced in late 2019. The author expressed support for Maya Forstater who lost a labor court about comments she made on social media about transgender people.
Forstater disagreed with the UK government’s plans to give people the ability to self-identify their gender, as it does not believe that it is possible for a person to change gender. Their opinion is that men who undergo reassignment surgery are still men even if the law recognizes them as women.
“Dress how you want,” Rowling wrote in a tweet on December 19, 2019. “Call yourself what you want. Sleep with a consenting adult who will have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But are you forcing women out of their jobs because they claim sex is real?”
For people like Forstater and Rowling, there is a belief that gender identity is segregated from biological sex and should not be a priority in law and politics. Those with similar convictions often call themselves gender-critical feminists, fear that sex in nonexistence will be contested and that women’s rights will be undermined.
These feminists are often referred to as “trans-exclusive radical feminists” or TERFs. This is usually used in a negative context.
“Despite its inherent flaws, social media can serve as a mechanism to empower voices that have traditionally been disenfranchised, such as trans individuals, and to demand accountability for those in positions of power whose words can harm groups with historically less power.” said Caty Borum Chattoo, executive director of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University.
Anti-government protesters hold signs that read J.K. Rowling’s transphobic Twitter comments while attending a Harry Potter rally outside the Democracy Monument on Aug 3, 2020 in Bangkok, Thailand. The pro-democracy protest called on demonstrators to “work the Patronus magic to protect democracy”. This event was part of a series of protests.
Lauren DeCicca | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Rowling re-addressed her gender and gender identity opinions in June 2020.
“When sex isn’t real, there is no same-sex attraction,” she wrote on June 6 in one of several tweets. “If sex is not real, the lived reality of women worldwide will be erased. I know and love trans people. But by erasing the concept of sex, many are deprived of the ability to discuss their lives in a meaningful way. It’s not hate, the truth accept. “
A few days later, after criticism, Rowling wrote a 3,600 word essay on their personal website defending their comments. Rowling argued that trans women in particular undermine women as a political and biological class and call them “predators”.
At that point, LGBTQ groups like GLAAD and the human rights campaign and even the actors who brought their work to life spoke out against them.
The most notable voices came from the trio of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint who portrayed Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley in the original films.
Grint reiterated his support for trans people rolled into one Interview with Esquire published last Friday.
“I felt like I had [speak out] because I think it was important, “he said.” Only out of friendliness and only out of respect for people. I think it’s a valuable group that I have to stand up for. “
Rowling’s PR team declined to comment and directed CNBC to speak to Warner Bros. However, the company’s spokesmen did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
Rowling’s reputation isn’t the only thing scoring, especially after posting a series of comments dubbed “anti-trans”.
While total fiction book sales rose 31.4% in June 2020 compared to May, Rowling’s titles rose just 10.9%, according to NPD BookScan. A year earlier, Rowling’s book sales were 33.2% higher than the industry’s growth. Other Harry Potter-licensed titles that Rowling was not authored also saw a slight decline. Sales rose by just 7.7% last June.
Sales of Rowling’s books also fell in July and August, but rebounded in September. An analyst for NPD said the drop in sales could be due to Rowling’s comments or a seasonal shift in book sales.
Ultimately, Rowling’s sales grew 16% in 2020, outperforming the Youth Literature segment, which grew 11%, and the Youth Literature segment, which grew 6%.
“So if the news had an impact, it was short,” said the analyst.
People pose for photographers with copies of J.K. Rowling’s new book ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ during a book launch event at a mall in Chennai, India on July 31, 2016.
Arun Sankar | AFP | Getty Images
Still, the controversy could return to haunt AT&T. When it was reported that HBO Max might be making a new Harry Potter series, avid fans who traditionally would have asked for more Wizarding World content were torn apart. As much as they want to see additional content, they didn’t want to reward Rowling’s recent behavior with their wallets.
“I actually spoke to students about this particular topic a few months ago just before I retired,” said Garland Waller, former director of Boston University’s television graduate program. “They’re very conflicted. They said things like, ‘Harry Potter was such a part of my life, but now I feel guilty when I watch one of the old HP movies.'”
Fans around the world are open about the betrayal they felt from Rowling’s comments. Harry Potter is a story that has inspired so many to embrace themselves, whether by accepting their own sexual orientation or gender identity, or by sharing their real selves with the people they love. Many have also pointed to the Harry Potter series as a catalyst for dealing with bullying and grief.
Social media has comments from fans who are now conflicting when it comes to supporting new content that Rowling would ultimately benefit financially from.
In addition to Rowling, WarnerMedia is also facing the challenge of a contract with NBCUniversal in 2016.
Since the deal was finalized before HBO Max or Comcast’s Peacock launched, the two companies have negotiated a pact that will allow them to share the digital rights to the films. HBO Max got all the movies out last May, but Peacock took over in October. Over the next four years, the two streamers will continue to swap custody of the franchise.
Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”.
“No doubt AT & T’s WarnerMedia now regrets its decision to license Harry Potter to stream NBCUniversal through 2025 – a decision that marked a short-term, instantly for-profit, head in the sand mentality of streaming-first realities “said Peter Csathy, founder and chairman of digital media consultancy CreaTV Media.
“WarnerMedia made instant money but gave up the long-term marketing blow to HBO Max that only Harry Potter could have given,” he said. “You won’t make this mistake twice. Once NBCU’s license expires in 2025, WarnerMedia will never let go of the Harry Potter franchise. Harry Potter will play the leading role in WarnerMedia’s long-term long-term corporate strategy.”
NBCUniversal representatives were not immediately available to comment.
Waller noted that people are hurt by Rowling’s comments and want the author and WarnerMedia to “make an honest effort to do the right thing”.
This could be done through donations to trans organizations, by bringing in a trans showrunner or producer to monitor future content, to ensure that production jobs go to trans individuals as part of diversity initiatives, and to have continued and open discussions about Leading diversity.
“My experience with students these days is that they spot a fake a mile away,” said Waller. “They are fed up with corporate types babbling about how open they are and how much they care. If it’s a superficial, lame effort, the forces are denounced. Authenticity is key.”
Rowling’s recent comment is unlikely to tarnish the Harry Potter brand for too long, Csathy suggested, calling it a “rare, timeless, enduring” franchise that will ultimately overshadow its creator.
“Yes, some fans will understandably be shut down forever because of J.K. Rowling’s abuse – and shut down forever because of it – but the vast majority of Harry Potter fans won’t just stick with the franchise,” he said. “They’ll want more. And Warner Bros. will be happy to give it to them, inspired by Disney and its burgeoning multi-channel vision for Star Wars.”
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBC not only owns the exclusive TV rights for the Harry Potter films, but also operates Harry Potter-themed areas in its amusement parks.