His Dark Materials — not quite dead yet?

Last week, I speculated that New Line’s absorption by Warner Brothers might not mean the end of the His Dark Materials trilogy, even though The Golden Compass‘s underwhelming box-office performance in North America has been widely cited as one of the reasons for New Line’s demise. Yesterday, Variety published a long-ish column by Adam Dawtrey on this subject, and his speculations dovetail with my own — while adding a few new wrinkles:

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. . . .

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.”

I wonder… if the sequels were produced by some company other than New Line or Warner Brothers, would the actors who signed on to do the entire trilogy still be obliged to take part in those movies? Or were their contracts specific to the New Line productions, only?

There’s a lot more in Dawtrey’s column about the differences between the North American and foreign marketing schemes for this film, and how those differences might have affected the box-office performances in those respective territories. For example:

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.”

I think there may be something to this, though how much, I don’t know. What I do know is that it always struck me as kind of odd that New Line didn’t even seem to be trying to reach out to the religious market the way that Sony did — with some success — for the similarly controversial The Da Vinci Code (2006).

Meanwhile, on a related note, Variety also posted a story yesterday on the fact that nearly every fantasy movie seems to do a lot better overseas than in North America — even the so-called “duds” like Stardust and, well, The Golden Compass.

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  • I think if they tried marketing the “flops” like Stardust and the Golden Compass as floggingly as they did the other crappy films, more people would have seen them.
    Had I not been looking forward to both of them, I wouldn’t have know they were out in the theatres already – it’s like pulling a show from TV that you don’t advertise or promote. You only have yourself to blame, and everyone loses as the *good* films and shows don’t get made.