The other day I saw the new Harry Potter movie in a theater packed with teenagers. They were expectant, excited, vocal; there were gasps and giggles when the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are, along with more than one fond “aww” from somewhere behind me.
Then the trailer for the new Twilight movie came up, and something wholly unexpected happened. During the very first scene, there were already scoffs from the teenagers around me. They talked through the trailer. They laughed at the main guy. The message I got, immediately, is that the honeymoon is over for that franchise.
Don’t get me wrong; I know there’s fans out there, and lots of them. I’m sure San Diego will be flooded with them. But if this rather mainstream audience (no striped scarves here) was any indication, the spell over an entire demographic is breaking.
Later on, my experience in the theater got me thinking. What is it about Harry Potter that has made its popularity last, if not grow, over a decade? Why is it immune from the curse that affects other wildly popular properties, the backlash, the burnout?
The easy, cheeky answer would be that the books are better and more enduring, but I don’t think that’s the only factor. After all, the series is certainly guilty of over-exposure and other factors that should have caused burnout by now. I think the Potter popularity is a perfect storm of several factors:
Choose Your Audience Wisely
Harry Potter is not aimed at one particular demographic: many of the fans read their first Potter book when they were still in elementary school. There are those children, now adults, who have grown with the books; those who read them as adults and passed them down to their children; and everything in-between. Obsessive teenagers who have crushes on the actors or write fanfiction are certainly part of the fanbase, but they aren’t the only part.
A series like Twilight, on the other hand, is aimed almost exclusively at teens, which certainly helped the meteoric leap in popularity (teens, and their disposable income, create stars and fads). Yes, adults read them, as guilty pleasures or to see what all the fuss is about, but there’s no doubt who the intended audience is. But if that current audience grows tired of the series, it may take a year or two for the next group to be old enough for it – if they’re interested.
Now for Something Completely Different
The popularity of vampires in popular culture has waxed and waned since Nosferatu first stepped on the screen. We’re fascinated with vampires, and since there’s no fixed mythology, it’s easy to come up with new ideas about them. Books and movies about vampires are readily available, which then lowers the value of any particular one.
A teen who reads Twilight and wants more of the same can read LJ Smith’s Vampire Diaries (written 20 years ago, but not much changes in tortured teen love). For something a little different, there’s Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles or the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries of Charlaine Harris. Heck, there’s Bram Stoker, Stephen King, Underworld and Buffy. The list goes on.
With wizards it’s a little different. There certainly was a fantasy boom when Harry Potter first became popular, but anything written specifically about wizards after JK Rowling now seems like a rip-off. And there wasn’t all that much solely about young wizards before Harry Potter. There were the unknown, one-off novels (I recall one called Wizard Hall from my childhood), and there’s the Worst Witch series, and maybe Lord of the Rings. Nothing that managed to sweep through the imaginations of the Western world.
If you want more Potter, your only choice is either to reread the series (and it’s long enough that when you finish, the beginning feels fresh again) or watch the movies. And many people do.
Party Time, Excellent
Okay, so not everyone will dress up like a character from Harry Potter, but if they wanted to, it’s easy. Not only are there several iconic looks that are easy to DIY, there are ready-made versions, as well as a ton of other merchandise. Whether you’re a kid playing with Hagrid and Cerberus figures, or an adult dressed up for a midnight showing or con, you’re engaged in a social activity – moving beyond simply reading a book or watching a movie.
Sure, it’s possible to do this with other books, but it’s tough to find that perfect outfit that’s easily identifiable AND easy to create.
Well, aspiring writers, you know what you need to do: find something that’s previously untapped, appeals to all ages, and easily marketable. Get going!
Oh, and one more thing: Yes, it does have to be good.