Choosing a director for ''Harry Potter''--Who will stand at the helm of the film franchise?

By Jeff Jensen
Updated March 17, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

If you know your Harry Potter books, then you know about ”the Sorting” — the gut-wrenching rite of passage at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. A mysterious process (a magic hat is involved) that you must undergo in front of your peers, the Sorting irrevocably defines your future. The last thing Harry saw before the hat dropped over his eyes, writes J.K. Rowling, was the hall full of people craning to get a good look at him. Next second he was looking at the black inside of the hat. He waited.

And now, Harry Potter anxiously waits again — along with millions of devoted fans — as Warner Bros. kicks off a real-life Sorting that will forever define the beloved young hero: choosing a director who will turn publishing’s biggest phenom into a hugely profitable film franchise. Since Steven Spielberg‘s stunning Feb. 22 announcement that he will not adapt Rowling’s first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the process has become Hollywood’s obsession du jour. The talk of the town is a competition among a host of A-list directors, with Brad Silberling (City of Angels) and Chris Columbus (Bicentennial Man) said to be at the top of the list. Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) and Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco) are reported to be in the running, and even Tim Robbins — he of such politically charged fare as Cradle Will Rock — confirms he’s a candidate.

In fact, when you consider that names like Steven Soderbergh (The Limey) and M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) have also been tossed around, it’s hard to find a director who hasn’t been in the Potter pool. ”It’s been mentioned to me, but believe me, it’s probably been mentioned to every single director in Hollywood,” says Sam Mendes, American Beauty‘s Oscar-nominated helmer, who politely passed. ”I loved the books, but I think that unless a movie is in your blood, it’s not for you.”

Rob Reiner (The Story of Us) and Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One) weren’t wild about filming Harry either. Despite overtures from new Warner Bros. chief Alan Horn, both directors told EW last week that they had withdrawn their names. With Warner Bros. aiming to film in England, Reiner didn’t want to be so far from home; and with a wished-for start date of this summer, Petersen, currently in the midst of postproduction on this July’s The Perfect Storm, cited scheduling problems.

Warner Bros. (owned by EW parent Time Warner) would not comment on the search but did deride reports of a ”bake-off” — with director after director coming in to pitch his vision to the studio — as half-baked. ”We’re not trying out for head cheerleader here,” says a studio spokeswoman. ”This is going through a process like every other movie.” The only candidate Warner Bros. will confirm is Silberling. Likewise, of the directors contacted, only Silberling and Robbins would confirm that they’re talking to the studio. Silberling had been tentatively attached soon after David Heyman (The Daytrippers) brought the project to Warner Bros. in 1998. (The studio reportedly paid $700,000 for the rights to the first two novels.) But now that Potter mania has reached full force, and Warner realizes it’s sitting on a Galleon mine, the studio wants to consider more prominent names. ”The stakes are too high,” says a Warner exec. ”We’re putting billions of dollars on the line.”