Top 12 Film Industry Stories of 2007 #12:
The Golden Compass Anything But Magnetic
By David Mumpower
December 27, 2007
As production of The Golden Compass unfolded, a teaser was aired for the first time in theaters and on the Internet. It focused upon the same aspects of storytelling that had made Disney's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a smashing success. There were the exotic locations, lavish set designs, and an adorable kid highlighted. But North American movie-going audiences are a mercurial bunch. For whatever reason, response was tepid. Later trailers and clips from the movie merited similarly icy reception. For whatever reason, all of the same aspects that had made prior fantasy epics successful were met with disdain in 2007. The signs of this were already on display with the late summer release of Stardust, a Neil Gaiman adaptation that was well received by critics and greatly appreciated by the few people who saw it in theaters. Despite the fact that it was a quality production, Stardust earned only $38.3 million against a $65 million budget.
The writing was on the wall that consumers were dissatisfied by recent fantasy epic options. That theory was validated when The Golden Compass earned a miserable $25.8 million on opening weekend, well beneath the $40 million estimate its own studio had for the title. A production with a budget of $180 million and a negative cost of as much as $250 million had failed to match even the least ambitious of expectations. As I type this, it has current domestic box office of only $53.1 million after 19 days in release. It has already fallen out of the top ten. While we would normally examine whether the prospects of overseas box office might save such a title, New Line Cinema does not have even that possibility available to them. They sold off worldwide rights in order to find investors to help them offset production costs.
A movie featuring armor-clad bears looking to open whoop-ass upon snowbound opponents has completely failed to appeal to children. Re-read the prior sentence again to appreciate fully the unlikely nature of such a scenario. Children raised to love the company of toy bears are unable to identify with CGI representations that are cute and fuzzy one minute then warriors of the apocalypse the next. Never has a marketing campaign experienced a larger indictment. A surefire premise had failed to catch on with the mainstream public.
The end result of this occurred just prior to the holidays. Less than two weeks after the release of The Golden Compass, New Line Cinema had come to terms with Peter Jackson on a settlement, agreeing to pay him previously owed back-end money from The Lord of the Rings as a compromise. In exchange, Jackson will oversee but not direct a pair of prequels to his trilogy. The Hobbit will be split into two movies, and New Line Cinema once again has a pair of tentpole fantasy epics moving forward. Two films they will not be making in the foreseeable future, however, are The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Those two remaining titles in the His Dark Materials trilogy are no longer viewed as profitable titles for the studio. So dramatic is the failure of The Golden Compass that sequels are currently out of the question. Also, they have forced New Line co-founder Robert Shaye to swallow his pride long enough to kiss and make up with Jackson. People who wanted movie adaptations of The Hobbit oddly have The Golden Compass to thank for their upcoming productions.