Will The Golden Compass Keep Going South?

Opening in 3,528 theaters, the lavishly promoted The Golden Compass pulled in $26.1 million, according to Boxofficemojo.com, far short of what studio New Line Cinema expected, which was between $30 and $40 million.

Compass drew the ire of many Christians because the movie is based on the first book in a trilogy called His Dark Materials by avowed atheist Philip Pullman, who has said publicly that his books are about killing God.  In USA Today, Rolf Mittweg of New Line Cinema conceded that the “religion controversy might have had an effect.”

By contrast, during the same opening weekend in December 2005, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of Christian writer C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia stories to make it to film, grossed more than $65.5 million.  Another interesting comparison is to Bella, the low-budget, independent pro-life movie with significant Christian grassroots support.  Bella opened in late October in 165 theaters, and on a per screen basis, Bella made $8,024.  Compass averaged only $7,400 per screen. Bella has lasted longer than most films, and was in 402 theaters over the weekend, bringing its total run box office to $7,249,000.

Concern over Pullman's ultimate message had been growing among Christian groups as The Golden Compass's debut approached. And many reviewers were not especially happy with the film. Entertainment Weekly, for instance, headlined its feature story “Golden Raspberry.”

The Catholic League, which had announced a boycott of the film, released this reaction today from League President Bill Donohue:

 “Our goal was to stop The Golden Compass from meeting box office expectations, and we succeeded. … consider that Golden Compass cost $180 million to produce, and another $30-$40 million in advertising, the inescapable conclusion is that our boycott worked. No wonder the New York Times said today that instead of the movie giving Hollywood a much needed shot in the arm, 'It got more like a punch in the face.'”

The New York Times  reported that “disappointing ticket sales complicate New Line's hopes for churning out two sequels.”  USA Today reported that New Line's Mittweg said a franchise “isn't out of the question” but that the studio has to “figure out how to do them.” 

Considering that the trilogy ends with children killing God, that might be a tough one to figure out if they want wider support of Christian filmgoers.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.