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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "The Golden Compass," a costly fantasy starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, got off to a slow start at the North American box office and will likely fall short of opening-weekend expectations.
New Line Cinema's $180 million film sold an estimated $8.8 million worth of tickets during its first day in theaters on Friday, according to data issued on Saturday by tracking firm Box Office Mojo (www.boxofficemojo.com).
After Saturday and Sunday sales are factored in, the film will come in at No. 1 with about $28 million when the studios issue their weekend estimates on Sunday, said Paul Dergarabedian at Media By Numbers, another tracking firm.
New Line, a struggling Time Warner Inc unit hoping to launch another franchise along the lines of its blockbuster "Lord of the Rings" series, said last week it was hoping the film would open to between $30 million and $40 million.
"It's below expectations, but it's not an out-and-out debacle," said Dergarabedian.
Conspiring against the movie, he said, were such factors as a soft marketplace and unrealistic expectations for an epic fantasy filling the holiday void left by the "Narnia" and "Lord of the Rings" smashes.
A New Line executive did not return a call seeking comment.
Based on the first book in British author Philip Pullman's acclaimed children's series "His Dark Materials," writer/director Chris Weitz's film is set in an alternate world ruled by an oppressive religious authority. It features talking animals and a heroine played by youngster Dakota Blue Richards.
Even though the film downplays the religious aspect, it has been savaged by such groups as the Catholic League and the U.S. Conference of Bishops. Opponents have cited Pullman's unflattering portrayal of the church and specifically the Catholic faith.
Critics were also generally negative on the film, according to the web site Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com), which collates reviews.
The film represents another disappointment for Kidman, who had yet to headline a live-action $100 million movie. Her most recent successes were 2005's "The Interpreter" ($72 million) and 2003's "Cold Mountain" ($96 million).
She and Craig co-starred in the summer release "The Invasion," which flopped with just $15 million. Craig had better luck reviving the James Bond franchise last year with "Casino Royale" ($167 million).
New Line has also struggled. Its biggest movie of 2007, "Rush Hour 3" ($140 million), earned less than half of its predecessor. Other films, such as Jim Carrey's "The Number 23" and the wartime drama "Rendition" quickly came and went.
Editing by Peter Cooney