Potter pushed back

In need of summer tentpole, WB picks July 17

Bad news, Muggles: There will be no Harry Potter movie this year.

In a surprise move, Warner Bros. has moved the release date of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" from Nov. 21 to July 17. Warners president Alan Horn blamed last winter's 100-day WGA strike in large part for the shift, suggesting all the major studios have been hurt in the development of new tentpole films for next summer.

"We are still feeling the repercussions of the writers strike, which impacted the readiness of scripts for other films — changing the competitive landscape for 2009 and offering new windows of opportunity that we wanted to take advantage of," Horn said. "We agreed the best strategy was to move 'Half-Blood Prince' to July, where it perfectly fills the gap for a major tentpole release for midsummer."

The move also reflects execs' belief that the "summer season is an ideal window for a family tentpole release," he said.

Warners had hoped to have a franchise-launching movie based on the "Justice League of America" comic book ready for next summer, but the project was shelved indefinitely during the WGA strike.

Warners opened the previous Potter movie, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," to $77.1 million in July 2007 en route to $292 million domestically. It represented the second-biggest grosser in the franchise's history after the 2001 original.

The studio said it will release a two-movie adaptation of the final book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," as planned. "Deathly Hallows: Part I" is set to unspool Nov. 19, 2010.

"Half-Blood," which translates the sixth Potter book to the big screen, is being directed by David Yates. Postproduction already has been completed on the film, execs said.

Moving Potter out of the attractive pre-Thanksgiving boxoffice frame should set off further jockeying for position among rival studios. Already, it has prompted Disney to move up the release of its animated feature "Bolt" five days to Nov. 21.

Universal's action-fantasy tentpole "Land of the Lost" is the only other wide release scheduled for Potter's new date. It wasn't immediately clear whether Uni execs might consider moving the film or would stand firm with a July 17 release.

For Warners, the move frees up a potential opportunity for reloading "Dark Knight" theatrically.

The Batman sequel, which has grossed about $453 million domestically, is likely to shed many of its playdates by winter. Warners is likely to restoke film marketing — and perhaps re-expand its theater count — sometime just before "Dark Knight" hits DVD in December.

Reinvigorating the "Dark Knight" campaign also could bolster Imax's slate, as the giant-screen exhibitor had been counting on the Potter film for the holiday period.

Wall Street seemed unshaken by the Potter move. Analysts including Pali Capital's Rich Greenfield noted that the film's original November slotting would have weighted the fourth quarter with heavy marketing costs, while "Dark Knight" already ensures a healthy revenue haul for the studio in 2008.

For a publicly traded company like Warners parent Time Warner, earnings growth is vital. So moving Potter to next summer improves prospects of a decent revenue comparison with Batman-swelled '08.

Greenfield said he expects "Bolt" and another animated feature — DreamWorks Animation's "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," bowing Nov. 11 — to be the most immediate beneficiaries of the Potter move. He noted that the shift means a reduction in competition for family moviegoers over the Thanksgiving period.

On the other hand, movie theater owners will be hard-pressed to find a silver lining in the studio developments.

"Exhibition just lost $300 million from their fourth quarter," a top studio exec said. "Maybe they make back 10% (from other films), but that's about all exhibition can expect to make up."

Separately on Thursday, Warners said it is shifting "17 Again," a comedy starring Zac Efron and Matthew Perry, from Feb. 20 to April 17.