Late in 1997, film producer David Heyman's London offices received a copy of the first book in what would become Rowling's series of seven Harry Potter novels. The book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, was relegated to a low-priority bookshelf, where it was discovered by a secretary who read it and gave it to Heyman with a positive review. This fateful act influenced Heyman, who had originally disliked "the rubbish title", to read the book himself. Highly impressed by Rowling's work, he began the process that was to lead to the most successful cinematic franchise of all time.
Heyman's enthusiasm led to Rowling's 1999 sale of the film rights for the first four Harry Potter books to Warner Bros. for a reported £1 million (US$2,000,000). A demand Rowling made was that the principal cast be kept strictly British, allowing nevertheless for the inclusion of many Irish actors such as the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore, and for casting of French and Eastern European actors in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where characters from the book are specified as such. Rowling was hesitant to sell the rights because she "didn't want to give them control over the rest of the story" by selling the rights to the characters, which would have enabled Warner Bros. to make non-author-written sequels.
Although Steven Spielberg initially negotiated to direct the first film, he declined the offer. Spielberg wanted the adaptation to be an animated film, with American actor Haley Joel Osment to provide Harry Potter's voice. Spielberg contended that, in his opinion, there was every expectation of profit in making the film, and that making money would have been like "shooting ducks in a barrel. It's just a slam dunk. It's just like withdrawing a billion dollars and putting it into your personal bank accounts. There's no challenge". In the Rubbish Bin section of her website, Rowling maintains that she has no role in choosing directors for the films, writing "Anyone who thinks I could (or would) have 'veto-ed' him [Spielberg] needs their Quick-Quotes Quill serviced." After Spielberg left, talks began with other directors, including: Chris Columbus, Terry Gilliam, Jonathan Demme, Mike Newell, Alan Parker, Wolfgang Petersen, Rob Reiner, Tim Robbins, Brad Silberling, and Peter Weir. Petersen and Reiner both pulled out of the running in March 2000. It was then narrowed down to Silberling, Columbus, Parker and Gilliam. Rowling's first choice was Terry Gilliam. However on 28 March 2000 Columbus was appointed as director of the film, with Warner Bros. citing his work on other family films such as Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire as influences for their decision.
|“||Harry Potter is the kind of timeless literary achievement that comes around once in a lifetime. Since the books have generated such a passionate following across the world, it was important to us to find a director that has an affinity for both children and magic. I can't think of anyone more ideally suited for this job than Chris [Columbus].||”|
Steve Kloves was selected to write the screenplay for the first film. He described adapting the book as "tough", as it did not "lend itself to adaptation as well as the next two books." Kloves was sent a "raft" of synopses of books proposed as film adaptations, with Harry Potter being the only one that jumped out at him. He went out and bought the book, and became an instant fan. When speaking to Warner Bros. he stated that the film had to be British, and had to be true to the characters. David Heyman was confirmed to produce the film. Rowling received a large amount of creative control for the film, an arrangement that Columbus did not mind.
Warner Bros. had initially planned to release the first film over the 4 July 2001 weekend, making for such a short production window that several of the originally proposed directors had pulled themselves out of the running. Eventually, due to time constraints the date was put back to 16 November 2001.