20 years later, and streaming Harry Potter is still too complicated

Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, depending on your locality) hit movie theaters 20 years ago today. It kicked off the eight-film adaptation of the massively popular children’s book series, which concluded with the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 a decade ago in 2011.

In that time, the Potter films have become a magnet for marathoning, driven in no small part by fan-favorite Freeform (née ABC Family) broadcasts of the films. ABC actually picked up the rights to the series just weeks after the first film had even hit theaters, reportedly spending roughly $140 million to be able to broadcast the first two movies.

The network spent the next decade collecting the broadcast rights to the remaining films as they were released, culminating in the debut of Deathly Hallows – Part 2 in winter 2013. Freeform would go on to spend the next half-decade regularly airing the full Potter saga across weekends, particularly around the holidays (which holiday didn’t particularly matter).

Unlike most major properties, Harry Potter spent the bulk of its two decades of existence unavailable on streaming services, aside from brief stints at HBO. It was a relic of an older, pre-internet era of films, where TV rights and DVD sales were the priority of the day after box office receipts, and the idea of Netflix as a streaming service was just a glimmer of an idea in Reed Hasting’s head.

Harry Potter

Image: Warner Bros

That all ended in 2016, though. Disney’s ABC rights were set to expire at the end of 2017, and the Potter franchise was suddenly a hugely valuable chip to Warner Bros. to license out to whoever was willing to pay the price. The rights were split up, with NBCUniversal getting the cable rights on SyFy and USA (and its digital platforms) for an estimated $250 million, with streaming going to Warner Bros. sister company HBO.

The timing here is also key. 2016 was years before AT&T would buy Time Warner, the creation of WarnerMedia, or the announcement that the newly branded company would be forming its own streaming service, which would eventually go on to be called HBO Max.

In 2021, having popular fan-favorite streaming content is essential, a lesson that’s been proven time and again by the pricey purchases of rights for things like Seinfeld or The Office. But that lesson was far less clear when the Potter rights were last up in the air. And now, with NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia both trying to get their own streaming service to take off, having the Harry Potter movies for recreating those rose-tinted memories of ABC Family weekends has become more important than ever.

The result is a dizzying tug of war between the two services that’s seen the Potter films bounce back and forth from Peacock to HBO Max and back again every few months since the two services both launched in April and May 2020.

As of publication time, the series is available on both platforms (for now), but with NBCUniversal’s deal not set to expire until 2025, odds are that Potter will continue to move around thanks to the complex licensing labyrinth for the next few years.

So where does all that leave a Harry Potter fan just looking to be able to binge-watch with the boy wizard on a weekend whim? Well, you could try and keep track of where the Potter rights are at any given month. (The internet has no shortage of sites looking to cash in on the SEO games of trying to answer that question.) You could admit defeat and pay up for both HBO Max’s $14.99 per month cost and Peacock Premium’s $4.99 per month fee to ensure consistent Potter playback.

But I would propose cutting through the Gordian Knot of terrible licensing deals entirely and pull a card from the network’s book: much like ABC, NBC, or HBO, just buy a copy of the film from iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, or whichever digital retailer of choice you prefer. Heck, buy a Blu-Ray, if you have the space for discs and something to watch them on.

The Harry Potter movies support the Movies Anywhere digital locker system, so if you buy them on one platform, you can sync them to virtually any major service. The purchased copies, unlike both Peacock and HBO Max, offer 4K resolution and Dolby Vision HDR. And the films are regularly on sale. (At the time of publication, there’s a broad $59.99 discount on the eight-film series on Google Play, iTunes, and Vudu for the 4K versions.)

Plus, once purchased, the movies are actually yours (or at least, as much yours as any digitally purchased film can be, which is the best one can hope for in 2021) to marathon on a whim whenever you’d like.

Streaming was supposed to be the grand answer to the capricious cable calendar, promising a world where any movie could be watched whenever you want. But Harry Potter is the perfect storm of battling brands where the simplest solution is simply to just give up entirely.

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