Most producers can only dream about churning out $24 million from 3,700 midnight showings or $61.15 million in one day. But that’s what Harry Potter producer David Heyman experiences every time he opens a new chapter in the $5.48 billion Harry Potter franchise: Breaking a new record. The opening day for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 set a record for the series, ranking the fifth best first day bow among all films. Once an indie producer on such offbeat Parker Posey comedies as 1996’s The Daytrippers, which launched director Greg Mottola (Superbad), Heyman’s producing career took a 180 when he optioned an unpublished manuscript by author J.K. Rowling. On Hallows opening day, he took time out to give us some insight on how the Harry Potter franchise has impacted his career and the film industry.
AD: Aside from Hallows marking the ‘beginning of the end,’ what thematically sets this Potter apart from other chapters, particularly in the message that’s being sold to audiences?
DH: At the end of Half-Blood Prince Harry’s mentor Dumbledore passes away and we find Harry, Ron and Hermione on their own with no one to turn to and no mentors. They are alone on their own. It’s about growing up and the pressures and responsibilities that go with that. We shot the film with a lot of handheld, muted tones to heighten the sense of reality. It’s the first film where they’re not in Hogwarts. It’s about reality, truthfulness. This film is about people who are forced to be older than they should be.
AD: What lessons as a producer have you learned from the Harry Potter series?
DH: In some ways, many of the skills you have as a producer on independent films also apply to making big tentpole films: You surround yourself with a brilliant director, great script and talented people in every department who are smarter than you. I learned an incredible amount about visual effects. The most important thing is that you have to have the visual effects working for you, instead of you working for the visual effects. We’ve had four hugely talented directors and a host of brilliant actors and I’ve learned from watching them.
AD: Is it hard to make a movie in Hollywood when it isn’t a tentpole? (One of Heyman’s credits is the 2008 Holocaust drama The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas.)
DH: Clearly, it’s a lot harder to get films made when they aren’t tentpoles than those that are. The key to working in a place like Warner Bros is to have a really great filmmaker working on the film. Outside of the studio, that’s what financiers are taking notice of more -- great directors in addition to stars.
AD: Did Harry Potter ruin filmmaking for everyone else, specifically setting the bar too high for other tentpoles?
DH: Absolutely not. Another series will come along and do well. Just look at Twilight. The key to Potter’s success is that we have wonderful books. We approached those books as fans and showed a real commitment to capturing them. What we do not do is view each film as a sequel. We try to make each one better than the last. In terms of other adaptations, there’s been wonderful franchises and I think the key is with them, for example Iron Man, is they're not trying to be like anything else. Like Harry Potter is true to Harry Potter, Iron Man is true to Iron Man. The films you're making have to be faithful to the material.
AD: Given Harry Potter’s built-in brand, have marketing costs been stripped down on each film?
DH: Warner Bros. puts an incredible amount of money to put a film out there. They’re constantly reinventing the marketing materials to the point that they really understand the uniqueness of each film we’re making. You look at the marketing tools from Part 1 through 7 and you see each of them are fresh and exciting.
AD: As a producer, what material appeals to you? You possess a keen sense when it comes to developing smart tentpoles, i.e. I Am Legend.
DH: I like stories that begin with characters. I like to be engaged and moved by the characters in the story. I want to be moved. I want to leave the cinema and think about what I’ve seen. My sensibility is quite eclectic and it doesn’t matter if they are small or large films, I just want to make good films.
AD: What’s up with Gravity?
DH: I don’t want to talk too much about it because in the next couple of weeks, it will begin to take shape. It’s going to be amazing. Alfonso Cuaron is a masterful filmmaker. Sandra Bullock is attached, Robert Downey Jr. is not. In terms of his replacement, we’re trying to figure out everyone’s schedules.
AD: The future of the studio system -- is it threatened?
DH: No, it is not. We are at a very interesting time. Nobody knows what the future holds. There are changes in terms of the means of distribution and technology. I think the studio system will adapt to these new technologies and people will always want to go to the cinema. The studios have a distinct advantage in having the keys to distribution. But how the models change, I haven’t a clue.