The first Harry Potter novel turns 20 this month, but the franchise’s earnings power seems to be getting only stronger with age. Author J.K. Rowling earned $95 million over the 12 months to June, before taxes and management fees, by FORBES’ estimate. That not only places the British novelist third on our list of the world’s highest-paid celebrities, it also earns her the title of the world’s highest-paid author, surpassing the prolific James Patterson (No. 9, $87 million), who has held the crown for nearly a decade.
Rowling’s 12-month earnings have not exceeded $19 million since 2008, when she topped FORBES’ Celebrity 100 with an astounding $300 million. This year’s surge is largely due to her stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Though Rowling has numerous revenue streams from the Harry Potter franchise, she made nearly half of this year’s earnings from writing about the Boy Who Lived. The stage play, written by Jack Thorne based on an original new story by Rowling, Thorne and John Tiffany, was the bestselling book of 2016 in the U.S., U.K. and a number of other countries. In the U.S., it has sold over 4.5 million copies since its July release, according to NPD Bookscan, which covers approximately 85% of the U.S. print book market. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child also buoyed the sales of Rowling’s back catalogue. Rowling sold 8.4 million print units in the U.S. over the past 12 months, topping her nearest competitor, James Patterson, by 2.5 million units, according to NPD Bookscan. Though the vast majority of Rowling’s sales are hardcover units, a knowledgeable source says that her company Pottermore returned to profitability in this fiscal year largely thanks to a surge in e-book sales.
Across the pond, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has also made millions for Rowling. The stage play topped the charts in Rowling’s native Britain with 1,372,402 copies sold in 2016. The West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a smash hit, critically and commercially. It won nine Olivier Awards, an all-time record for a West-End production, and is sold out well into 2018. Next April, the play will transfer to Broadway, where it will likely bring greater profits for Rowling due to higher ticket prices (and perhaps a Tony).
The second-largest chunk of her income comes from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a chain of themed attractions at Universal Parks & Resorts. Rowling receives low double-digit millions from a share of ticket, merchandise, sponsorship and food and beverage revenue. Wizarding World has been a massive boon for Universal Studios since the first one opened in 2010 at the Islands of Adventure park in Florida. Attendance at Universal Studios’ theme parks rose 80% to 47.4 million from 2010 to 2016, according to industry reports by the Themed Entertainment Association and AECOM.
Universal Studios spent a king’s ransom for the Harry Potter licensing rights and building the attractions—the first Wizarding World reportedly cost $265 million—but it has more than paid off. “From my point of view being a theme park designer, the Harry Potter series is more valuable and even bigger than Star Wars,” says Edward Marks, Co-CEO of the Producers Group, an international theme park production company.
“Potter crosses all ages, all sexes and connects with almost everyone.”
He has worked with Universal on and off since 1990 but was not involved in Wizarding World. According to Marks, the Wizarding World attractions, which are highly immersive, were an artistic and commercial gamechanger for Universal. “Harry Potter changed the way theme parks are designed and built,” he says.
Rowling’s latest film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is her lowest-grossing movie ever with a “mere” worldwide gross of $814 million on an $180 million production budget. But thanks to her renown and her screenwriter credit, Rowling got a low double-digit percentage of the net box office, a much higher share than most authors, ultimately receiving over $10 million, by our estimate. Though the sequel, slated for 2018, will likely gross less worldwide (and certainly in North America), the warm critical reception to the first film could give the next few installments a leg up, says Scott Mendelson, FORBES contributor and box office pundit. “Since most folks liked the first Fantastic Beasts, all Warner Bros. has to do is make a decent or better sequel and they will have goodwill for at least one or two more, at which point they are home free even if the last two stink.”
As long as the films are budgeted reasonably – $200 million or less, says Mendelson – Rowling should be able to continue to make a pretty penny off the big-screen adventures of Newt Scamander if they can gross $600 million worldwide. As for the original Harry Potter movies, Warner Bros. recently sold the television airing rights to NBC Universal in a seven-year deal estimated at $250 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. We estimate that Rowling received a low-double digit share of the deal with payments divided over the seven years.
After a phenomenal year, Rowling’s earnings are set to dip since she will not be publishing a new Harry Potter book within our 12-month scoring period. But between her upcoming Broadway production, the Fantastic Beasts sequels and a possible Wizarding World in Beijing, she might continue to top Patterson in years to come.
The Celebrity 100 ranks “front of camera” entertainers around the world by pretax earnings from June 1, 2016 to June 1, 2017, before deducting fees for agents, lawyers and managers. Our numbers are based on figures from IMDB, Nielsen, NPD Bookscan and Pollstar, as well as interviews with industry experts and many of the stars themselves. – Written by Hayley C. CuccinelloFORBES STAFF