December 7, 2007 / 3:18 AM / 11 years ago

Fantasy looks "Golden" at box office

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - From the time New Line acquired rights to British author Philip Pullman’s children’s literary series “His Dark Materials,” there has been talk that the resulting film “The Golden Compass” could launch a lucrative franchise for the studio.

No pressure there for executives at the Time Warner division.

Toting a production budget of $180 million and another $60 million or so in marketing costs, they will need to eke out every theatrical dollar possible if this “Compass” is to prove golden, let alone any sort of franchise starter.

New Line opens the first in this potential series of family fantasies across North America on Friday, and it should easily end the two-week reign of Disney’s “Enchanted.”

“We should do somewhere between $30 million-$40 million,” estimated Rolf Mittweg, New Line’s president and chief operating officer of worldwide distribution and marketing.

Eight foreign territories getting the film Wednesday rang up an encouraging $4.2 million, of which an impressive $1.9 million came from the U.K. In all, the film will be playing in 27 markets overseas during the weekend.

Based on the first book in the “Dark Materials” trilogy, “Compass” has generated decent buzz among prospective moviegoers amid early reviews that have been good, if not great. Yet press coverage has included an unfortunate controversy over quasi-religious aspects of the material.

Rated PG-13, “Compass” surely will skew young, with younger males and females showing equal film awareness in prerelease tracking surveys. Must-see interest in the effects-laden fantasy actioner is a bit wobbly, but that so-so youth interest should be bolstered by adult appeal keying on a cast featuring Nicole Kidman in a villainous role and Ian McKellen voicing a polar bear.

Much has been made of the thematic similarity of “Golden Compass” and Disney’s 2005 release “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which opened to $65.6 million — enough to prompt a pair of sequels.

But “Narnia” was embraced by church groups, while “Compass” has been vilified in some of the same corners. That’s largely because the books’ young heroine — portrayed in the film by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards — is entrapped in a battle of good and evil, with a Catholic Church-like entity called the Magisterium depicted as a bastion of evil.

Director Chris Weitz has stressed that the film downplays the books’ religious references, but the 350,000-member Catholic League has been sending out leaflets criticizing the film, and the U.S. Conference of Bishops has decried “Compass” for “anti-clerical subtext.”

Despite such distractions, tracking has shown a definite improvement over the past week.

“The tracking services have had a hard time tracking this movie,” Mittweg said. “There probably hasn’t been a movie carried by a teenage girl heroine since ‘The Wizard of Oz.”‘

“Compass” is this weekend’s sole wide opener. Notable limited bows this weekend include awards hopefuls “Atonement,” “Juno,” and “Grace Is Gone.”

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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