Wands are up today in mourning for Chestnut Hill’s Harry Potter Festival. The beloved annual gathering, which has grown substantially over the last seven years and at its peak brought in nearly 50,000 fans, has been canceled after organizers received a cease-and-desist letter from Warner Bros.
I, along with many other wizards, witches, and Muggles, am supremely bummed.
Full disclosure: I am a superfan. My bona fides include multiple Potter-themed vacations, including a transatlantic voyage to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in previews on the West End; a lightning-bolt tattoo; undergrad research on the books; and a presentation at Chestnut Hill College’s annual Potter academic conference on why Cursed Child’s use of time travel luckily nullifies its place in the canon.
Maybe that says a lot about me. But I think it says more about the series and the fandom that built it into an international cultural touchstone.
I’ve attended nearly every Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Festival and I’ve got a bottle of Iron Hill Brewery’s “Dumbledore’s Dubbel” aging at home. Each year has been better than the last, but I think the fest finally reached its true potential last year when they opened up Germantown Avenue to pedestrians. It was a beautiful day and it felt as if every square inch of road was full of costumed fans of all ages. The family activities were fun, if low-budget; the Sorting Hat ceremony and Read-a-thon were my favorites. But, for me, the best part was being around that many fans with ear-to-ear grins just taking it all in.
As a fan, I took great pride that my hometown had this charming and inclusive event, especially considering how expensive other Potter experiences can be. (Looking at you, Universal Orlando.)
But honestly, I knew it wouldn’t last once the internet caught wind of it. The year the festival landed on HuffPost, Teen Vogue, and Cosmopolitan, I noticed many more out-of-town license plates around town. A pair of women I ran into at Iron Hill even said they spontaneously drove overnight from Indiana once they heard about it online.
I knew it wouldn’t last because fans of everything from Star Trek to Stranger Things have received their fair share of cease-and-desist letters. They’re part of a long history of tensions between fan communities and copyright owners.
As long as fandoms have existed, fans have wanted to celebrate, discuss, and remix their favorite stories. As technology has made this easier, hard-core pop-culture lovers have refused to be passive consumers, expressing their obsessions through fan fiction, wikis, apparel, and restaurants. Even the most casual fans share memes of their favorite TV characters.
But the brands at the heart of our mass-media landscape in all its merchandised glory aren’t always supportive of this creativity, especially when fans want to make money off of copyrighted ideas.
Over the years Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. have sent mixed messages to fans about interacting with the series, at turns encouraging creations like fan fiction and fighting fan sites run by teens.
Upon learning Chestnut Hill’s festival would end, Henry Jenkins, a media scholar known for his work on participatory culture, said the move feels like part of a common media cycle: Companies crack down on copyright infringement, fans push back, executives realize their value, fan culture explodes, and companies get twitchy over controlling their properties.
“The pendulum swings back and forth,” Jenkins said. “We’re in the middle, I think, of a new pendulum swing of reining some of it in.”
Jenkins notes that promotional and legal teams within these companies are often at odds over fan activities, and even wondered whether the departure of a longtime Rowling ally at Warner Bros. could affect the company’s position. Or maybe the company has realized its franchise is particularly vulnerable right now.
“I’ve seen a lot of the old-guard Harry Potter fans become more and more alienated from the franchise, and maybe they’re building some new ones with the Fantastic Beast films and the Broadway play, but they’re further eroding the goodwill, the infrastructure of fandom that has sustained the property over time.”
Jenkins said the decision could even reverberate through fandoms across Hollywood.
“It creates a chilling effect.”
It certainly has for me. Of course I believe artists have the right to ownership of, and thus profits from, their work. But I can’t help but feel disappointed that a worldwide company like Warner Bros. would squash such a heartwarming tradition as our Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Festival.
Perhaps a compromise can be made. Clearly, Warner Bros. does not want Chestnut Hill businesses to profit off of their intellectual property. Much of the festival admittedly revolves around shopping for Potter-related goods and eating Potter-inspired foods. Though Chestnut Hill’s business district director, Philip Dawson, told the Inquirer and Daily News that Warner Bros. won’t issue a license for the event, maybe the company could loosen certain restrictions and shops could donate a portion of profits to Rowling’s Lumos Foundation.
Is that a bit of a stretch? Perhaps. But the world of remixed pop culture and participatory superfandom isn’t going away. It might behoove Warner Bros. to strike a deal before estranging its aging foundation of fans. And it’s certainly worth fans speaking up.