'Golden Compass' Tops Weekend Box Office

“The Golden Compass” proved a mild fantasy at the box office, pulling in $26.1 million, a modest opening weekend compared to such recent December heavyweights as “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” flicks.

New Line Cinema’s “The Golden Compass,” whose cast includes Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, also took in $55 million overseas since it began opening last Wednesday in 25 other countries.

Disney’s “Enchanted,” the No. 1 movie the previous two weekends, fell to second-place with $10.7 million, raising its total to $83.9 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.

New Line, which had enormous success with its three “Lord of the Rings” films, had hoped for more out of “The Golden Compass,” expecting it to reach at least $30 million domestically over its first weekend, said Rolf Mittweg, the studio’s marketing chief. The film cost $180 million to make.

“The Golden Compass” follows the adventures of an orphan girl hurled into a parallel world of witches, strange flying machines and talking polar bears.

Parents with children accounted for half of the film’s audience, so New Line is counting on family crowds that flock to theaters over the holidays to keep the movie afloat, Mittweg said.

The three “Lord of the Rings” films released from 2001 to 2003 had opening weekends ranging from $47.2 million to $72.6 million. Disney’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” opened with $65.6 million in 2005.

Those were based on very familiar fantasy literature from J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, while “The Golden Compass” was adapted from the first book of Philip Pullman’s lesser-known “His Dark Materials” trilogy.

Mittweg said he was uncertain about the effects of a backlash against “The Golden Compass” by some Christians, who said Pullman’s books preach atheism.

“It’s very hard to say. Historically, protests of these sorts tend to be ineffective on box-office results,” Mittweg said.

After a summer of record revenue, Hollywood’s business has dipped most of the fall. The modest start for “The Golden Compass” continued that trend, with the top-12 movies taking in $73.2 million, down 10 percent from the same weekend last year.

“This is pretty emblematic of what’s been going on with the marketplace,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers. “You need a mega-blockbuster at this time of year to boost confidence and the box office, and we’re waiting, and we’re running out of time.”

The next few weeks do bring potential hits with Will Smith’s sci-fi tale “I Am Legend,” Nicolas Cage’s action sequel “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” Johnny Depp’s bloody musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and Jason Lee’s family film “Alvin and the Chipmunks.”

A handful of films opened in limited release to qualify for the Academy Awards.

Fox Searchlight’s “Juno” had a huge debut, hauling in $420,113 in just seven theaters, averaging a whopping $60,016 a cinema. The film stars Ellen Page as a whipsmart pregnant teen who seeks out what she thinks is the perfect couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) to adopt her baby.

Focus Features’ “Atonement,” a drama starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, opened well with $816,883 in 32 theaters for a $25,528 average. The film centers on the consequences of a teen’s false criminal accusations against her sister’s lover.

By comparison, “The Golden Compass” averaged $7,405 in 3,528 theaters.

“Juno” and “Atonement” expand to more theaters over the next few weeks.

The Weinstein Co. drama “Grace Is Gone,” starring John Cusack as an Iraq war widower struggling to tell his young daughters their mother has died in combat, had a so-so opening with $14,000 in four theaters.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Media By Numbers LLC. Final figures will be released Monday.

1. “The Golden Compass,” $26.1 million.
2. “Enchanted,” $10.7 million.
3. “This Christmas,” $5 million.
4. “Fred Claus,” $4.7 million.
5. “Beowulf,” $4.4 million.
6. “No Country for Old Men,” $4.2 million.
7. “August Rush,” $3.5 million.
8. “Hitman,” $3.48 million.
9. “Awake,” $3.3 million.
10. “Bee Movie,” $2.6 million.

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