New Line fantasy brings in less than expected

New Line’s pricey fantasy epic “The Golden Compass” endured a $26.1 million opening at the domestic box office from 3,528 theaters, a soft debut considering the tentpole’s production budget of at least $180 million.

“Compass,” the only new wide release of the frame, easily came in at No. 1, although New Line had expected the pic to open at between $30 million and $40 million.

New Line, which has been touting the film for months as the studio’s next big franchise, didn’t try to veil its disappointment but shifted the focus away from the domestic perf to the overseas box office, where “Compass” grossed $55 million from 25 territories in its day-and-date release. Studio sold off international territories.

After “Compass,” a batch of holdovers continued to enjoy strong legs domestically, topped off by Disney’s “Enchanted,” which crossed the $80 million mark in its third frame and came in No. 2 for the weekend, according to Rentrak. Pic declined 35% to an estimated $10.7 million from 3,520 runs; cume is $83.9 million.

But the box office still couldn’t shake off its fall funk. Frame was down a steep 19% from the same weekend a year ago, when “Apocalypto,” “Happy Feet,” “The Holiday” and “Casino Royale” led. Year to date is still up, but the weak fall has been steadily eroding the advantage gained during a strong summer.

Weekend was far cheerier on the limited side as Fox Searchlight’s quirky laffer “Juno” and Focus Features’ “Atonement” both scored strong openings, while Miramax’s “No Country for Old Men” moved up to No. 6 overall as it expanded to more than 1,300 theaters. “Compass,” directed by Chris Weitz and starring Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, is based on the young-adult book trilogy “His Dark Materials” by Brit author Philip Pullman. Story is set in a multidimensional world where each person’s soul is contained in an animal and a diabolical church seeks to control all.

New Line has floundered for much of the year at the box office and looked to “Compass” to ride the same wave that turned “The Lord of the Rings” into a blockbuster film franchise. Some have put the production budget for “Compass” at north of $200 million, while the studio said it cost $180 million.

New Line’s contract with Time Warner is up in 2008, so the studio’s box office performance is sure to be scrutinized.

While New Line scored in the summer with “Hairspray” and “Rush Hour 3,” its fall releases have been lackluster, with “Rendition,” “Martian Child” and “Love in the Time of Cholera” failing to connect with auds.

New Line emphasized the worldwide performance of “Compass,” saying Pullman’s books are far more popular overseas. Even though the studio has sold off international territories, meaning its returns will be capped, it says it is in solid financial shape.

In the U.S., some Catholic orgs have called for a boycott of the film, saying it will encourage children to read the books, which offer a decidedly negative view of the church. New Line and Weitz toned down this aspect in the film.

Domestic audience was 50% families and 50% people aged 15-55. Audience was evenly split among the genders.

“We are a bit disappointed with the domestic opening, but we still think we are set up very well for the holiday. We are the first film out of the gate and will have good word of mouth and slow build. We should have a successful holiday season,” said New Line prexy-chief operating officer of worldwide marketing and distribution Rolf Mittweg.

The playing field, however, is about to become quite competitive.

This coming weekend, Warner Bros. bows Will Smith sci-fi tentpole “I Am Legend,” while 20th Century Fox opens the younger-skewing “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” On Dec. 21, Disney unspools Christmas tentpole “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” while a number of other pics also enter the fray, including DreamWorks-Warner Bros.’ “Sweeney Todd.”

Mittweg said it is far too early to say whether the studio would greenlight the next film in Pullman’s trilogy but again pointed to the strong overseas results. “You need a respectable gross out of North America and a very strong international gross to do that,” he said.

As a general rule, fantasy plays well abroad.

This summer, Paramount took a hit domestically with fantasy epic “Stardust,” which opened at $9.1 million on its way to grossing just $38.4 million. Overseas, where it’s still playing, film has grossed $94.7 million. “Stardust” reportedly cost $70 million to make.

On Dec. 15 last year, Fox’s fantasy entry “Eragon,” which cost $100 million to produce, opened at $23.2 million domestically on its way to grossing $75 million. Film’s international gross was a hefty $174.3 million.

“Compass” marks the second film to be released this fall starring Kidman and Craig. Warners’ “The Invasion” fared far worse, opening at $5.9 million on its way to a paltry domestic gross of $15 million. Pic grossed $24 million overseas.

Kidman did more publicity for “Compass” than she did for “Invasion” because of shooting schedules. Craig’s publicity for “Compass” was limited because he is shooting “Defiance.” Craig’s role in “Compass” is smaller than Kidman’s.

Elsewhere over the weekend, Warner Bros.’ Vince Vaughn laffer “Fred Claus” moved up the chart to No. 4 in its fifth frame, boasting the slimmest decline among wide releases. Christmas comedy dropped just 15% to an estimated $4.7 million from 3,185 theaters; cume is $65.6 million.

Coming in No. 3 was Sony’s African-American holiday entry “This Christmas,” which declined 37% in its third frame to an estimated $5 million from 1,879 theaters. Cume is $42.8 million.

Falling to No. 5 in its fourth frame was Paramount’s 3-D epic “Beowulf,” which declined 46% to an estimated $4.4 million from 2,976 playdates for a cume of $76 million.

Warners’ family title “August Rush” came in No. 7, declining 30% to an estimated $3.5 million from 2,310 theaters. Its cume is $25.1 million. Twentieth Century Fox’s bigscreen vidgame adaptation “Hitman” placed No. 8 in its third frame, declining 42% to an estimated $3.5 million from 2,418 theaters for a cume of $35.8 million.

MGM?s horror title “Awake” placed No. 9 in its second frame. Pic, from the Weinstein Co., declined 44% to an estimated $3.3 million from 2,023 runs for a cujme of $10.7 million. Placing No. 10, Par-DreamWorks Animation?s ?Bee Movie? crossed the $120 million mark in its sixth frame. ?Bee? declined 44% to an estimated $2.6 million from 2,707 runs; cume is $121 million.

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