After its strong start in Japan last week, “The Golden Compass” is on course to make box office history as the first film to gross $300 million in foreign while failing to reach $100 million in North America.

That’s an appropriately ambiguous record to mark the end of New Line as we know it. Some might argue it sums up the dysfunctionality that led Time Warner topper Jeff Bewkes to decide enough was enough.

As producer Deborah Forte points out, with a global gross heading for $375 million-$400 million and an Oscar to its name, “Golden Compass” counts as a success by most yardsticks — just not necessarily for New Line.

As with all its films, New Line sold off the international rights to “Golden Compass” to a patchwork of foreign indies plus a couple of local Warner arms, in order to pay for the $180 million official budget. So it will reap little reward from the international success, while retaining maximum downside from the pic’s paltry $70 million domestic gross.

With a downsized New Line set to become Warner label, the intriguing question is now whether Warner toppers will see past the domestic flop and greenlight the second and third installments of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy — “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” — based on those boffo foreign grosses.

Indeed, Warner, the studio behind “Harry Potter,” may turn out to be a better home for the Pullman franchise than New Line ever was.  

The sheer scale of the foreign success for “Golden Compass” — $264 million and counting, with the prospect of another $40 million from Japan and China — poses awkward questions about that New Line’s domestic failure with the movie.

Clearly, “Golden Compass” was not as unmarketable as the U.S. figures would suggest. “If the movie really wasn’t up to snuff, it wouldn’t have done $300 million,” Forte says.

Excuses that fantasy pics often do better in foreign, or that the film’s perceived anti-God message was a more powerful negative in the U.S., have a certain truth, but can’t fully explain the unprecedented gulf.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the foreign indies such as Entertainment in the U.K., Metropolitan in France, Tripictures in Spain, 01 in Italy and Gaga in Japan, not to mention Warner in Germany, simply did a better job of understanding and positioning “Golden Compass” as a family film, and heading off the potential problems in advance, than New Line’s domestic team did.

Take Italy, a heavily Catholic country where the pope himself blasted “Golden Compass” as “the most anti-Christmas film possible.” The movie nonetheless overcame a weak opening to gross a perfectly decent $15 million.

Italian distrib 01’s marketing topper Gaelle Armentano says, “By having a dialogue with the Catholic press we were able to limit the controversy and all that anti-clericalism that was so devastating in the U.S.” She adds that while New Line spent heavily to promote “Compass,” “the Americans got started a bit late. We got an earlier start and really pushed all channels.”

 Forte notes, “We probably underperformed in the U.S., and we performed according to expectations outside the U.S. Why? It’s so hard to tell. People say fantasy does much better overseas, and that the book was much better known, but I’m not sure either is true. The book was really only known in the U.K. and Australia. Most of the foreign distributors built awareness from scratch.”

In foreign markets, distribs managed to bring in the family audience — Armentano says she laser-targeted 8- to 13-year-olds in schools early on — whom New Line failed to attract Stateside with a much broader campaign. In the U.S., the pic’s biggest demographic was young adult males, who came looking for the next “Lord of the Rings,” left disappointed and told all their friends not to bother.

Foreign distribs were also much more effective at keeping the film playing, despite the odor of failure that rapidly spread from the U.S. In the States, the final gross was less than three times the opening weekend, whereas in the key foreign markets the final tallies came in at four or five times the opening figure.

“The film left money on the table in the States,” admits Forte. “The perception of this movie as a family film was not as great as in other territories. It did not get the heart of the family demographic that it was intended to. Maybe because it was coming from New Line, all the press was about whether it was the next ‘Lord of the Rings,’ a lot of the press was about very heady issues, none of the press was about the movie itself. It was not clear to a lot of family audiences that this film was for them.”

Forte won’t be drawn into blaming New Line’s marketing strategy. But for the upcoming DVD release, she says efforts are being made to rectify the problem. “We’ve talked to New Line about it, and they have agreed it must be marketed as a family film for DVD.”

It evidently rankles with Forte and the folks at New Line Intl., now facing pink slips, that the lame domestic showing has obscured the pic’s global performance. Some privately argue that if the pic had hit its $120 million-$150 million U.S. target, the foreign box office would have been a third bigger again. On the other hand, if the movie had been handled by a single studio worldwide, it’s hard to imagine that the international arm would have had the commitment to squeeze so much value out of the foreign market after the film flopped Stateside.

Forte says, “This was a success as a family movie in most countries, it’s a very strong family franchise, it won an Academy Award. We have to make the second and the third movie.”

Will New Line’s new bosses at Warner agree? With the mini-major being downsized into Warner as a genre label, big-budget fantasy family blockbusters — “The Hobbit” aside — may not be a natural fit with its new mandate.

Bewkes has cited the foreign upside of “Golden Compass” as one justification for channelling New Line’s pics through Warner’s global distribution in future. But a less ambitious, less independent New Line might not have embarked upon a project as bold and risky as “Golden Compass” in the first place. New Line turned to Pullman’s trilogy of British bestsellers to feed the demand of its foreign partners for something spectacular to follow “Lord of the Rings.”

In fact, the foreign-friendly nature of “Golden Compass” makes it a glaring exception on New Line’s recent slate. Since the “Rings” trilogy, its overseas distribs have had to suffer three years of very American comedies, horror and urban pics, with little value in the overseas market.

It’s hard to imagine the folks at Warner Intl. rubbing their hands at the prospect of more of the same  from a downsized New Line. But they might welcome “The Subtle Knife,” the second book in Pullman’s trilogy, for which Hossein Amini has already written a script, and the final installment “The Amber Spyglass.”

New Line’s foreign distribs would certainly snap up the sequels, if offered. If Warner gives the greenlight, the overseas indies won’t get a look-in, but should Warner put the rest of the trilogy into turnaround, there’s a ready-made independent market for the pics.

One way or another, Forte won’t give up the fight. “I will make ‘The Subtle Knife’ and ‘The Amber Spyglass,'” she vows. “I believe there are enough people who see what a viable and successful franchise we have.”

Nick Vivarelli in Rome, Nick Holdsworth in Moscow, Emiliano de Pablos in Madrid and Gunnar Rehlin in Stockholm contributed to this report.