Movie studios no longer produce films – they produce franchises.

Producing several sequels after an initial success is nothing new; studios have been doing that since silent films. My mother has the complete set of Charlie Chan mysteries chock-full of the ethnic stereotypes and intrigue that made them successful in the 1930s. The holiday season is dominated each year with Hollywood’s newest attempt to win mass audiences and Oscars. This year the franchise films “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Lord of the Rings” began the marketing push way back in the fall of 2000.

The buildup for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” resembled the sort of drama and fanfare reserved for royal weddings and papal appointments. The Arlington Theater began selling tickets five days before the Thursday night midnight premiere and the Santa Barbara News-Press advertised it with a front page Life section feature on the film. Every local news affiliate sent cameras to survey the long lines and TV anchors reported on the anticipation for the film with mock surprise. The crew from KEYT chose some adorable and photogenic young girls from the line. Between the ages of 8 and 11 they beamed before the television floodlights in their Britney Jr. outfits, ready to talk about a film they hadn’t even seen yet.

“Harry Potter” is the season’s real franchise juggernaut. Marketing began when the movie was cast during the last book frenzied release. Non-stop advertising has built a Potter empire. You can watch the film, read the books, eat the candy, play with the toys, color in the coloring books, brush your teeth with the toothbrush, sleep under a Harry Potter comforter and wear the Harry Potter line of eyeglasses. (I shit you not, they are offering them at Lens Crafters.) Releasing films before the holiday season yields a gold mine as children whose attention spans have been cut incredibly short are re-reminded by the constant images of Harry Potter and his magical scar to tell Santa they really want a Harry Potter wand and the complete set of action figures.

When Warner Brothers cut a check to J.K. Rowling, they weren’t just buying “The Sorcerer’s Stone;” they were buying the whole series of guaranteed box office successes. So far they have not been let down. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” has grossed over $186 million in its first two weeks. The next film is already in the works. (Note to the casting director: I suggest Owen Wilson in the role of Professor Lockhart, think about it.) They better hurry because kids grow up fast – I saw actor Daniel Radcliffe on Letterman, and I think little Harry Potter’s voice dropped an octave during post-production.

The franchise is something different; it’s full-immersion marketing with influence over each sector of the consumer public. Making films the whole family can enjoy at $7.75 a pop is just the appetizer. After the movie a family of four can head to Burger King(tm) where the kids can enjoy two Big Kids Meals(tm) with a “Lord of the Rings” action figure(tm). Mom and Dad can get the Whopper Combo(tm) with the “Lord of the Rings” Light-up Goblets(tm) – all for a limited time.

So I was there at “Harry Potter,” opening night, a grown woman of nearly 22 years, unescorted by child. But to be fair- all I really wanted was to see the new “Star Wars: Episode II” trailer.

Cara Jennison is the Daily Nexus design editor and a big consumer whore.