David Heyman: Man behind the magic

With the last of the eight Harry Potter films about to sweep the UK, their producer is emerging as the key figure in the franchise's staggering success

In the 1990s, the "British film producer" was an easy target of caricature.

All you needed (it used to be said) was a Filofax and a ponytail – and a tiny London office. The UK film industry abounded in what John Woodward – shortly to become chief executive of the UK Film Council – described witheringly as "basically one-man bands operating round Soho" with no capitalisation staggering from project to project.

It was against this grim backdrop that David Heyman, a young British producer newly returned from the US, set up his company Heyday Films in 1997. Nearly 15 years on, thanks to the Harry Potter franchise, Heyman is the most successful film producer of all time – and when people now think about the British in charge of film projects, the old caricature is forgotten.

Heyman's eminence was acknowledged earlier this week when he received the coveted "Producer of the Decade" award at the exhibitors' convention CineEurope Expo in Amsterdam. Not the kind of honour that usually comes the way of Brits, but the eight Harry Potter films that Heyman has produced over the past 10 years – the last, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2, is out this month – have made a staggering $7bn (£4.3bn) at the international box office.

Deathly Hallows Part 2 has a chance of being even more lucrative than any of the seven previous Potters. This is the only Potter film to have been made in 3D, which should enhance the immersive experience as Potter wages his final battle against Lord Voldermort – and allow the exhibitors to hike up their prices.

The new film comes at a timely moment for the industry, which has had a softish summer so far. The euphoria about 3D that was so evident at the time of Avatar two years ago has largely dissipated. Audiences have grown increasingly sceptical about paying premium ticket prices for murky films with half-baked plots. The hope is that Harry Potter in 3D will restore their faith – and while many people might think that the films have their work done for them by the power of JK Rowling's imagination and casts that comprise one dazzling name after another, Heyman's contribution to the enterprise has been crucial.

Even in 1997, Heyman had far loftier ambitions than most of his British contemporaries. He was one of a number of Brits who had come back to the UK after working in Hollywood (others include the current Ealing Studios boss Barnaby Thompson and the agent and talent manager Charles Finch) with the ambition to shake up the local business. Having worked within the US studio system (serving stints at Warner Bros and United Artists in the late 1980s) and with US indie producer credits on his belt, he knew how to put films together.

Despite the travails of British producers, it was an optimistic moment in British cinema. The industry had received a huge fillip from the success of Trainspotting and Four Weddings and a Funeral. The new Blair government, with its initial emphasis on "Cool Britannia," was ready to get behind British film-makers both through tax breaks and through increased Lottery investment.

Right from the outset, Heyman was looking to work with the studios. Heyday Films had an arrangement that it would try to source British material to sell on to Warner Bros. When a young development executive at Heyday called Tanya Seghatchian spotted a newspaper article about a new series of Wizard novels by a writer called JK Rowling, Heyman shared her enthusiasm. "I love books," he said later. "I read voraciously, and I happened to have been fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time." Thus began the relationship between Heyday Films and Warner Bros which has yielded probably the most successful film franchise in cinema history.

Heyman, who was born in London in 1961, had grown up around cinema. His father John Heyman is a financier, talent agent and producer, credited with creating the first global film sales company and probably best known for his work with Joseph Losey (for whom he produced The Go-Between). At the start of his career, when he headed PR for Associated Television, John Heyman's jobs included writing the questions for Double Your Money and managing Hughie Green. Heyman's mother is Norma Heyman, who was the first British woman to produce an independent feature on her own (The Honorary Consul in 1983) and whose other credits include Dangerous Liaisons and Mrs Henderson Presents. David's own career began as a runner on early 1980s films including David Lean's A Passage To India and Milos Forman's Ragtime.

Inevitably, there is a very lop-sided look about David Heyman's filmography. Pre-Harry Potter, it includes modestly budgeted independent films like Ernest Dickerson's Juice, starring Tupac Shakur, and cult stoner movie The Stoned Age. Heyday Films had made one other film, Antonia Bird's cannibal horror film Ravenous (1999), before the long march of the Harry Potters began. During the last decade, Heyman has also helped produce the dystopian sci-fi blockbuster Legend, starring Will Smith, Mark Herman's Holocaust drama, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and various other projects. These have enjoyed varying fortunes but can't help but seem like footnotes in a career so dominated by Hogwarts.

What has been remarkable about the Potter series is how smoothly it appears to have run. Notwithstanding occasional delays and hitches (the failure to make The Deathly Hallows Part 1 in 3D or the change in release date for the sixth instalment), the films haven't been prey to the battles behind the scenes, tantrums and legal spats that tend to dog most other franchises of this magnitude. This is a testament to the efficiency of Heyman (and his producer partner David Barron). It also hints at why Heyman still has a relatively low profile, in spite of his pivotal role in keeping the Potter juggernaut running. In interviews, he is personable, articulate but rarely says anything too contentious. Married to an interior designer, with whom he has one son, he lives in Pimlico in central London.

The signs are that Heyman will continue to partner with his Harry Potter collaborators. He is already working with one former Potter director, Alfonso Cuarón, on a CGI-driven space thriller called Gravity that has been shooting this summer at Shepperton Studios. Starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, this is about the survivor of a space mission gone wrong who is stranded and desperate to return to earth. Heyman has also optioned Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time, which Steve Kloves, who scripted most of the Potter films, will write and direct. Further down the line, there is talk of an animated feature using Lennon and McCartney songs. Later in the autumn, TV viewers will be able to see David Hare's ripping spy yarn Page Eight, which Heyman and David Barron produced for the BBC. Heyman Films and Warner Bros are also reportedly collaborating on a film version of Eli Anderson's The Adventures Of Oscar Pill, about a teenage boy who can travel inside human beings.

In other words, Heyman is bound to remain very busy indeed. Even so, he may find adjusting to the post-Potter world difficult. "We've been working with the very best in the business. The studio really just let us alone to make the films," he recently told Film Journal International. That, of course, is not the experience of the average British producer, who still has to scrabble around for financing and spend a mini-eternity getting a film into production. There's little chance that Heyman will suffer these vexations but it will be quite a stretch for Heyman – who is 50 this month – to do anything else in the rest of his career that even comes close to trumping Potter.

A life in brief

Born: 26 July 1961, London, England

Family: the son of John and Norma Heyman, both film producers. He is married to interior designer Rose Uniacke and they have one son

Education: attended school in the US and gained a degree in Art History from Harvard University

Career: started as a production assistant, rising to creative executive at Warner Brothers and then vice president of United Artists. Set up the production company Heyday Films in 1997; their first film was Ravenous. In 1999 he bought the film rights to the Harry Potter series. Heyman's films also include Yes Man and I Am Legend. His next project is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

He says: "I hadn't a clue the Potter books would become an international phenomenon but I loved the author's voice, that the book didn't talk down to kids and it made me laugh."

They say: "I need to say publicly how right I was to trust him, how much I owe him, how grateful I am to him, and that being involved in these films has been one of the best experiences of my life." JK Rowling

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