Aug. 16, 2007
Muggles: For journalists condemned to write about Hollywood, August may be the cruelest month. Sure, there have been news explosions in Augusts past—Sumner Redstone fired Tom Cruise in August, God bless him. Years back, Michael Eisner fired Jeffrey Katzenberg in August. Elvis died in August. But so far, this August hasn't moved us.
What do we have to work with here? It may be a sign of trouble ahead that Goldman Sachs has withdrawn its commitment to raise $1 billion for a batch of MGM movies, so we'll keep an eye on that. But we can't get excited about the drama of Ed Limato leaving ICM. There's a molecule of entertainment value in agents doing each other dirty, but why do we care which agency made Ed's deal? (William Morris, if you do care.) OK, Limato's got Denzel Washington, which has to be a decent business. But is Mel Gibson paying some kind of big commission these days? He hires himself to make his movies and supposedly coughs up 5 percent if and when he's hired to act. It's been a long time since What Women Want, friends, and we're not so sure that many women want him any more. As for Limato's other clients, is Richard Gere paying big dividends? And we're interested in what happens to ICM and William Morris because ... ?
So we turn for amusement to amusement parks. The details that follow here are not entirely news if you follow Disney obsessively, as does blogger Jim Hill. But it slipped past us at the time and most everyone else as well.
In June it was finally made official that Universal will create a Harry Potter attraction in Florida. The Los Angeles Times reported that this will enable Universal at last to challenge Disney's dominance there. It was mentioned that Disney had tried to make the deal. But Hill had the real dish. His under-the-radar report gave some details on Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling's ideas on how this attraction would work. And it said that Disney concluded the project would be an expensive nightmare.
Rowling's vision supposedly was that each person would enter through the Leaky Cauldron, tap on a brick, gain access to Diagon Alley, then proceed to a platform in a version of King's Cross station and take a train to Hogwarts. Disney figured it would have had to build multiple Leaky Cauldron entrances to cycle in small groups every two minutes. Admission to the attraction envisioned by Rowling would have run north of $800 per person. Disney's thought it might be able to drive the cost down a bit to make it comparable to Anheuser-Busch's Discovery Cove, where folks pay a few hundred bucks to swim with dolphins. But in the end, Disney and Rowling could not come to terms.
The fact that Disney was also shelling out big bucks for Pixar at the time might well have colored the company's thinking. As we look back, the situation reminds us of Disney's attempt to lure another persnickety British writer of children's books into a deal. Some time in the '80s, the company negotiated with Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers into approving a sequel. At the time, an internal memo leaked (to us, we're glad to say) in which Marty Kaplan—then a Disney executive and now at the USC Annenberg School for Communication—described Travers as an impossible tippler who couldn't stand Dick Van Dyke as Bert. No Mary Poppins 2 materialized.
It's unclear whether Universal's Harry Potter plan includes the elements that scared Disney off the deal. But Universal seems to have worked things out with Rowling in part through the fabulous diplomacy of Ron Meyer and in part by hiring Stuart Craig, the Oscar-winning production designer who worked on the Potter films and has Rowling's confidence. (Disney was said to be reluctant to link itself too closely with the movies, which are made by Warner Bros.)
Universal is mum on how much its attraction will cost. The last book is out, and by the time Universal gets ready to open, the last movie will be in sight. But the movies are still going great guns. Is there any doubt that the passion of Potter fans will suffice to repay Universal's investment, whatever it may be?
Kim Masters is an NPR correspondent and the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everyone Else.
Photograph of J.K. Rowling by Evan Agostini/Getty Images.