After eight films, over $2 billion in box office, and countless moments of cinematic wonder, we reluctantly bid farewell to our favorite boy wizard

Once upon a time, it was easy to be cynical about the Harry Potter movie franchise. When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was in production back in 2000, there were those in Hollywood who viewed Warner Bros.’ adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s novels as ”easy money” — as if making blockbuster cinema out of a global kid-lit phenomenon were a simple magic trick. And there were those who believed that telling a single epic story in seven-plus films over the span of a decade was doomed to fail for any number of reasons: The fan base was bound to lose its passion. Quality directors — wary of following another helmer’s work — would be hard to come by. And if the adorably precocious British tots on whose slight shoulders the whole costly gambit rested didn’t totally crumble from the pressure of becoming overnight superstars, then surely puberty would turn them into awkward, gangly messes. ”I, for one, was never worried about that,” says Daniel Radcliffe. ”Anyone who’s seen my father knew I was never going to get too tall. I think we all turned out just fine, actually.”

And then some. On July 15, when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 opens, an extraordinary moviemaking venture will come to a close. And while we lack the precognitive powers of Professor Sybill Trelawney, we predict the ending will be a happily lucrative one for what is already the biggest franchise in Hollywood history. The domestic box office after seven films: more than $2 billion. Audience interest has never ebbed. In fact, Potter’s grosses surged anew in the wake of the third film, 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a thrilling creative showcase for director Alfonso Cuarón. And thanks to the protective, nurturing environment built by producer David Heyman at Leavesden Studios, a crumbling former airplane-manufacturing plant near London that is as vast and drafty as Hogwarts itself, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint not only survived the franchise but flourished. Watching the three young stars blossom became another windfall of the Potter entertainment experience. Unless you were a Death Eater, it was impossible not to cheer. ”It’s amazing to me how the development of the kids became the defining story of these movies,” says Steve Kloves, who has written every Potter film save one. ”We wouldn’t be here without Dan, Rupert, and Emma.”

True. But the Potter success story is filled with heroes. There are the suits at Warner Bros. (which is, like Entertainment Weekly, a division of Time Warner) who allowed Heyman & Co. great creative freedom — and practically all the gold in Gringotts Bank. There’s Chris Columbus, director of the first two installments, who cast the kids and also hired production designer Stuart Craig to envision and build Harry Potter’s richly detailed magic world. There are Columbus’ successors in the director’s chair, who kept the films relevant to the culture and brought bolder approaches to storytelling in the series. And by the way, Team Potter does prefer the term series. ”I reject the label of franchise. It’s the wrong word for this collection of movies,” says Kloves. ”Jo gave us an ongoing tale, a series of stories that form one larger story. We never had to invent something ridiculous — like Harry fighting Nazis on the moon or something — just to make another film.”

But perhaps the most heroic act of all was staying true to Rowling’s vision. ”Think about it,” says Columbus. ”If they had cast American actors or put cheerleaders at Hogwarts — and all these hideous ideas were indeed being pitched and discussed at the time — Harry Potter would have been one movie, not a series. It would have died.” Further proof of how extraordinarily unique the series is: the graveyard of post-Potter page-to-screen fantasies that tried (and failed) to duplicate its success. Lemony Snicket. Eragon. Legend of the Seeker. The City of Ember. ”It comes down to one simple thing: seven brilliantly written books,” says Columbus. ”Jo wrote something that never needed to be ‘fixed’ to be made into movies, just interpreted. With all due respect to those authors, their books just aren’t as good.”

The Harry Potter phenomenon is not going to disapparate when the final film hits theaters. Rowling’s boy wizard has become as entrenched in the global pop firmament as Luke Skywalker, Batman, and Mickey Mouse. Toys, DVDs, a one-year-old theme park in Orlando, the ambitious new website Pottermore, developed by Rowling herself, and, yes, the books will keep the brand alive for generations. For the young man whose boyish face will always be attached to this iconic enterprise, there is nothing but gratitude. ”Harry Potter has given me everything,” says Radcliffe, ”and I suspect it will continue to bring me much for years to come. I’ll always be grateful for it.” Have we seen the last of Harry at the cineplex? Some Potterphiles dream of future stories suggested by the epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a series that — SPOILER ALERT! — might be dubbed Harry Potter: The Next Generation. But Potter’s cinematic stewards are fairly certain that this eighth film will be the last. ”I know I wouldn’t want to do Harry Potter Goes to Business School,” says Heyman. ”At least, not unless Jo writes it.” Actually, after generating billions of dollars in revenue, Harry Potter could probably teach business school.