Will ‘Compass’ find audiences?

Fantasy epic the frame's only wide release

Hoping to chart a new film franchise, New Line opens “The Golden Compass” in 3,528 theaters this weekend. Fantasy epic is the only wide release of the frame, leaving elbow room for Disney’s princess tale “Enchanted” and other holdovers.

Meanwhile, on the limited side of the biz, at least 13 pics will enter the fray, including Focus Features period piece “Atonement” and the Weinstein Co.’s “Grace Is Gone.” Weekend is also the first for Fox Searchlight’s quirky comedy “Juno,” which bowed Wednesday. “Compass,” directed by Chris Weitz and based on Brit author Philip Pullman’s young adult book trilogy “His Dark Materials,” stars Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

New Line is positioning the film as a worldwide event. “Compass” should easily win the weekend at the overseas box office as it goes day-and-date in 27 markets. Pic opened respectably on Wednesday with $4.3 million in nine territories, led by $1.9 million from 502 sites in the U.K.

“Compass” cost $180 million to produce, according to the studio.

At that pricetag, a domestic debut of under $30 million could be problematic for New Line. Studio said tracking suggests the film could open at $30 million-$40 million, although some box office observers put it lower.

New Line has sold off overseas territories.

“Compass” is set in a multidimensional world where the souls of people are contained in animals, or “daemons.” The main heroine of the series is a young girl who comes into possession of a magical compass and uses it to battle the evil Magisterium (in the book, clearly the Catholic Church).

Tracking for “Compass” suggests that the pic has huge unaided awareness, but a high percentage of those people — primarily older women — say they aren’t interested in seeing the film. Tracking is solid among families.

Some Catholic orgs have called for a boycott of the pic, even while New Line and Weitz played down the Catholic aspect of Pullman’s atheist-themed tomes.

“Compass” is rated PG-13, as were the last two “Harry Potter” films as well as the three “Lord of the Rings” films, none of which were hurt by the more restrictive rating.

In its bow Wednesday, “Juno” grossed an estimated $55,179 from seven theaters in New York and L.A. for a strong midweek per-location average of $7,883, according to Searchlight. Directed by Jason Reitman, film stars Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman.

Focus opens Joe Wright’s “Atonement,” toplining James McAvoy and Keira Knightley, in 32 theaters in key markets. TWC opens John Cusack starrer “Grace Is Gone,” directed by James C. Strouse, in four theaters in New York and L.A.

Other limited debuts include Slowhand’s horror title “Timber Falls,” which opens in 109 theaters nationwide; Guy Ritchie’s “Revolver,” which Samuel Goldwyn opens in three theaters in L.A. and Dallas; Paul Schrader’s “The Walker,” which ThinkFilm bows in three theaters in Gotham and L.A.; and “Looking for Cheyenne,” which Regent opens in one theater.

On the foreign front, the $1.9 million in Blighty for “Compass” compares to the first-day results for other fantasy pics, such as “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which took $1.7 million off 380 sites on its opening day two years ago. Pullman’s book “Northern Lights,” on which the pic is based, is a family fave in the U.K.; the Nov. 27 world premiere of “Compass” was attended by director Weitz and stars Craig, Nicole Kidman and Richards.

Other first-day “Compass” grosses include $792,423 in France, $731,529 in Spain and $494,373 in Thailand. It’s also launching in Germany, Russia and Scandinavia this weekend.

Fantasy franchises such as “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the five “Harry Potter” pics have seen massive success outside the U.S., with the fifth “Harry Potter” pic grossing more than $645 million offshore this summer.

Even lower-profile fantasy fare such as “Stardust” and “Eragon” have found solid foreign footing overseas. “Stardust” is nearing $100 million outside the U.S., salvaging a disappointing domestic gross of $38 million; “Eragon” scored $175 million overseas — more than double the domestic cume of $74 million.

“Beowulf,” which has won the last three international weekends for Warner Bros., should remain a major factor with over $80 million already grossed overseas. Disney’s “Enchanted,” which is opening gradually overseas with $20 million so far, goes into Greece and Italy.

Other launches include “30 Days of Night” into Brazil and Indonesia; “American Gangster” into Israel, Romania and South Africa; “Bee Movie” into Argentina, Australia and Thailand; “The Heartbreak Kid” into Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore; and “Hot Fuzz” into Spain.

(Archie Thomas in London contributed to this report.)