"The Golden Compass" Will (probably) Bomb.
Particularly if the early talk is anything to go on. The primary buzz around the film at the moment is the predictable boycotting from religious groups, sadly fanning the flames of infamy by contributing incendiary myths of dangerous heresy to an average series of books, wholly not good or widely read enough to be 'dangerous to the public morals' or to 'raise up a new generation of atheists'. Indeed from my experience, the book's primary acolytes appear to be already well-entrenched youngish adult atheists, happy to see their own views find a high-minded advocate with children.
Rumor has it New Line is waiting on the results of Compass to see if The Subtle Knife is worth pressing ahead with; a single wise choice among a series of bad ones. There are simple reasons this film is most likely to be an underperformer.
Budget. At over 200mil sans marketing, this is, tragically, struggling New Line's seasonal tentpole project. They've invested an arm and a leg in it, and are expecting, indeed needing it to perform like a top-tier fantasy film in the holy triumvirate of Frodo, Harry, and Aslan. Necessary domestic returns are expected to be in the 290 - high 300's to keep it afloat. Let's have a quick look at the BO history of fantasy films. (courtesy of boxofficemojo.com)
The numbers say if you're not one of the big three, your chances are dismal. The dropoff levels between the unstoppable trinity and even the closest competitors is a veritable chasm, for a few simple reasons. Fantasy films are a hard emotional sell. Auds need to feel reasonably familiar with a premise before they'll invest their money, and an evening out in it. Narnia and Rings have decades of accumulated cultural capital, and a global fanbase in the hundreds of millions. Potter is a recent phenomenon, but a mega-phenomenon nonetheless. It's a household name that no matter how Pullman's advocates (or those who pitched the film) try to spin it, the Materials trilogy simply can't touch for name-awareness.
It's a critical darling, it's a favorite in literary circles, but it's not a household name. And unless you're a conscientious reader of young adult fiction, you probably don't know much about it. Yet it's being given a bigger budget than Narnia. 50 million bigger, in fact. What about this isn't adding up?
Dissonance of Medium. Aka, "Sure, it worked as a book..."
Success in the literary market is obviously no guarantee of success in the film world, especially for a type of film known as a blockbuster. A successful blockbuster is a synthesis. The first ingredient is "Can't miss this" content that tugs at your soul in a primal way. The trailer gives you goosebumps. The stakes are high; danger is everywhere, and the conflict and villains are clearly defined and intense. You want to see it. You need to see it. It appeals to something ancient and universal.
Compass lacks this absolutely critical clarity and punch in its moral dilemmas, its villains, its story, and its characters. Response to the trailer among neophytes has been a mixture of confusion and disdain. People think the film either has no clear focus, or simply looks bad. (actually, both are true.) Likewise, we see movies to be built up; not to have our worlds torn down. We long for positivity and affirmation; not pale-eyed cynicism and muttered contempt for this institution or that. (as recently evidenced by the Blockbuster status of Enchanted, though that's worth an essay in itself) HDM tugs at portions of the mind; affirming cynicism of institutions and society, and devotes it's positiveness toward an abstract sense of human 'self' above all that may resonate with certain intellectuals as a sort of Ayn Rand for kids, but nobody else. Subtextual hatred of God and religion may be red meat to small groups of ideological fanatics; but even among everyday nonreligious agnostics, it's not an idea that's likely to ignite the sort of fire in the belly required to fill seats.
The themes gratify portions of our intellect, but it doesn't, can't, tug at our collective souls. This kind of material in concert with some nice language and brisk storytelling can succeed in the literary market. But it does not historically sell 300-400 million domestic dollars in movie tickets.
There are a host of other reasons as well. Rumor is the anti-religious tenor was toned down for the film, which risks turning the central villains and conflicts into mush; something you absolutely cannot do and expect to survive. You don't bring compromised, emotionally castrated, half-product to market with this much invested in it. With so much apparently going wrong here, I can't help feeling this entire venture amounts to spending two hundred million dressing up a donkey as a stallion, and pushing it onto the track at the kentucky derby with a ticket in your hand and a hopeful expression.
Though this may be understandable in light of the fact that Compass is being executive produced by Robert Shaye; leftie New Line bigwig who directed another misguided act of pseudo-leftist cinematic hubris known as 'The Last Mimzy' earlier this year, which also went on to catastrophic boxoffice returns. In fact, his producing credits yield all of two significant hits in twenty years; one was Hairspray, the other, a certain trilogy about Hobbits. For the unitiated; two comparable films from recent years are Superman Returns, and Jackson's King Kong. Both cost upward of 200mil, both returned almost exactly 200mil, and were roundly considered bombs. It was an uphill climb to 200, and these films already had a wealth of cultural capital behind them; far, far more than Materials currently does. And they had the added benefit of actually being pretty good films, too. Viewed in light of these facts, Compass's prospects seem almost catastrophically dire.
Word is if this thing tanks, heads will roll at New Line. If my analysis is correct, I'll be waiting at the end of the red carpet with my trusty mitt. My current estimate if all goes well? Between 140-180m domestic.
Note: Just as an official qualifier, these are all estimations. Boxoffice is notoriously difficult to predict, and dark horses break out and become surprise hits all the time. Compass may be fantastic. It may be a 400mil hit. I'm fully open to the idea that this may happen here. But I'm not counting on it.
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