Will ‘Compass’ lead to success?

'Golden' opens in theaters Dec. 7

Will “Golden Compass” be the box office beacon New Line Cinema needs to keep on course?

New Line couldn’t have more riding on the big-budget fantasy epic, which unspools in theaters Dec. 7 and is based on the children’s trilogy by Brit author Philip Pullman. Studio has decided to sneak peek the film this Saturday in 750-800 theaters.

With a production budget of $180 million, “Compass” is likely the most expensive movie New Line has made, not to mention being the priciest film of the fall. New Line made the investment in hopes of striking the same sort of B.O. gold it scored with “The Lord of the Rings” franchise. The only other pic that may have cost the same, or more, is the third “LOTR” installment.

As Jeff Bewkes and Time Warner weigh whether to reup the deal with Bob Shaye and Michael Lynton’s New Line, film’s perf could factor into any decision. Studio has suffered a series of box office disappointments this year, although it did score a sleeper hit with “Hairspray.”

New Line faces several key challenges in selling “Compass,” directed by Chris Weitz and toplining Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Dakota Blue Richards in the story of a young girl who discovers parallel universes.

For one, the action-adventure pic is rated PG-13, so it could have trouble pulling in families. Disney’s bigscreen adaptation of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” was rated PG, opening at $65.5 million on its way to grossing $291.7 million domestically.

New Line counters that Pullman’s trilogy, entitled “His Dark Materials,” is meant for young adults, while C.S. Lewis’ “Narnia” books were aimed at younger children.

If “Compass” was rated PG, it might be difficult to convince teens — a coveted aud — to turn out.

All three “LOTR” films were rated PG-13, as were the last two “Harry Potter” pics. The more restrictive rating certainly didn’t hurt any of those films. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” both grossed more domestically than the second and third “Potter” films, which were rated PG like the first installment.

One distinct disadvantage facing “Compass”: Pullman’s decade-old trilogy isn’t the brand name that J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” and Lewis’ “Narnia” books are. Yet sales of “Golden Compass” have been spiking in the U.S. in advance of the movie’s opening, with the tome hitting USA Today’s top 50 list.

There’s also the issue of the Catholic League, which has called for an official boycott of “Compass,” even though Weitz and New Line toned down the anti-Catholic sentiment running through Pullman’s novels. (In the movie, the church isn’t called the church but the “Magisterium.”)

Whether such attacks hurt a film is another matter, however. Sony’s bigscreen adaptation “The Da Vinci Code” wasn’t hurt, nor was Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” to cite two examples.

New Line preemed the film in London on Tuesday. Looking to play off the buzz from the event and U.K. reviews, studio booked the sneak peeks.

“Compass” officially opens one week later in more than 3,000 theaters. To date, only about 60 theaters have suggested they won’t play “Compass” because of issues involving the boycott.

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