The end of Walden?

Walden Media was created seven years ago to make movies based on classic children’s books, among other things.

But of the 20 films they have produced so far, only six have grossed over $50 million: Holes (2003), Bridge to Terabithia (2007), Charlotte’s Web (2006), Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) and the two Chronicles of Narnia movies (2005-2008). The rest have been either modest successes at best, given the low budgets that some of them had, or outright flops at worst.

Two years ago, Walden joined forces with Fox to become one of that studio’s several boutique labels, and around this time last year, Variety magazine even ran an article announcing that Fox Walden was ready to challenge Disney for a share of the family-movie audience — a challenge that didn’t turn out so well for Walden in the months that followed.

And now? Variety reported nine days ago that Fox has “absorbed” its Walden division:

After launching two years ago to much fanfare, the Fox Walden marketing venture is being shuttered as a stand-alone company and will be re-absorbed as an inhouse unit of 20th Century Fox’s marketing division.

As part of the restructuring, about a dozen Fox Walden staffers will be laid off. In addition, Fox Walden marketing prexy Jeffrey Godsick will segue to the Century City studio as exec VP of marketing and digital content and will also retain his Fox Walden title. . . .

Though Fox and Walden had high hopes for the joint venture when it was created in August 2006 to market family films produced by the two companies, there weren’t enough pics to warrant a stand-alone marketing entity. In the ensuing two years, only three movies have been released under the logo: “Nim’s Island,” “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” and “The Seeker.” Though “City of Ember” will unspool next week as part of the partnership, there are no films planned for release in 2009. . . .

And how did City of Ember do when it opened yesterday? Not very well. So badly, in fact, that David Poland opined:

City of Ember on 2022 screens… an unmitigated distribution car wreck. The film is heading to one of the very worst opening weekend per-screeens of this year (around #115 of 125 wide releases). The crew at Fox Walden seemed to be working without an ad budget and with a lot of energy… that didn’t take. The choice to launch the film at Fantastic Fest instead of prioritizing the national media ended up defining the experience.

And, one must say, that Jeffrey Godsick’s return to Fox just days ago tells us that “they” knew exactly what was about to happen, that Jeffrey was taken back onto the mother ship as the studio surely agreed to do if things didn’t work out, and that the end of Fox Walden as a production entity is unannounced but inevitable.

So will Walden survive apart from Fox? Who knows.

If memory serves, at the time they hooked up with Fox, Walden wasn’t supposed to have any new non-Fox projects on the go except for the Narnia series, the rights to which are co-owned by Disney — and as far as I know, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is still in the works for a May 2010 release, even though Prince Caspian was widely regarded as something of an underperformer this year.

But apart from that? Like I say, who knows.

For what it’s worth, the box-office failure of City of Ember should probably also be seen in the light of what Patrick Goldstein has described as “the Fox bad movie streak”:

Out of sheer horror and dismay, ever since I launched the blog early this summer, I’ve been keeping track of all the awful movies released by 20th Century Fox, the one studio in town that seems to actually pride itself on its ability to avoid using A-list talent and successfully market dim-bulb movies. Putting aside last spring’s “Horton Hears a Who,” Fox has released 21 movies since the July 27 opening of “The Simpsons Movie.” Of those 21, none has managed to even score a mediocre 50 at Rotten Tomatoes, the Web’s leading aggregator of movie reviews. Hence the streak. (Rotten Tomatoes seemed a scrupulously fair barometer, since it’s owned by–ahem–News Corp., Fox’s parent company.)

Now the streak has reached 22. The studio today released “City of Ember,” a family-friendly fantasy from Walden Media about a post-apocalyptic underground city running out of energy and food. I actually would’ve gone to see a screening of the film myself, since I admire its director, Gil Kenan, and its costar, Bill Murray, but the idea of a print journalist like me getting invited to an early screening of a Fox film is about as likely as Oliver Stone getting a personal invitation to a Sarah Palin rally.

To be fair, Fox has managed to make a bit of money here and there, despite a generally agreed-upon lack of quality; the phenomenal success of last year’s Alvin and the Chipmunks caught everyone by surprise, for example.

But consider this: Prince Caspian was originally going to open in December, around the same time as Alvin and the Chipmunks, but then Walden decided to put it off until the summer, to make room for The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, which was also produced by Walden, and which came out on Christmas Day. The end result? The Water Horse didn’t make all that much money, and Prince Caspian‘s mediocre box-office performance was blamed on a crowded summer market. And Alvin and the Chipmunks, which was not a Walden film, had the holiday-season family-movie audience pretty much all to itself.

So Walden, by bumping its Disney movie out of the way of a non-Walden Fox movie, may have helped Fox to make more money than it expected to. But Walden itself didn’t reap all that many benefits, and the movies that Walden has made for Fox since then continue to disappoint.

Make of all this what you will.

“Canadian” films, not-so-Canadian stories

Alas, I pretty much missed the last few days of the Vancouver International Film Festival this week, but I hope to get a few capsule reviews up in the near future anyway. In the meantime, I think it’s worth noting how this year’s festival, perhaps unwittingly, underscored the ongoing question of what, exactly, constitutes a “Canadian” film.

The movie that opened the “Canadian Images” section of the festival two weeks ago was Stone of Destiny, which tells the true story of how a handful of Scots drove down to London in 1950 and stole the titular relic from Westminster Abbey. What is the Canadian connection, you ask? Well, it was produced with a bit of Canadian money, and writer-director Charles Martin Smith — best known perhaps for playing one of The Untouchables (1987), along with Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and Andy Garcia — happens to live and work in Vancouver. But that’s pretty much it. (For what it’s worth, though, one of the characters depicted in the film did move to Vancouver some years later; his widow was at the screening I attended.)

Meanwhile, the film that won the “Western Canada Feature Film Award” last night was Fifty Dead Men Walking, which tells the true story of how a member of the IRA saved a few dozen lives by leaking information to the Brits. What is the Canadian connection, you ask? Well, it was produced with a bit of Canadian money, and writer-director Kari Skogland comes from British Columbia. Even better, a brief prologue shows the former snitch living in hiding somewhere in Canada — but the rest of the movie, told as one giant flashback, still takes place in Belfast.

See the problem? If the purpose of promoting Canadian filmmakers — whether by giving them government grants or by devoting an entire festival series to them — is to help our artists to “tell our stories”, then these particular films wouldn’t quite seem to do the trick. They may be “Canadian” behind the camera, but in front of the camera, they tell basically Scottish or Irish stories instead.

Now, Canada certainly has a strong connection to the British Isles in general, and to its Celtic roots in particular, so it’s not surprising that we would have an affinity for stories like these. And there were certainly lots of other films at this festival which were indisputably Canadian on both sides of the camera. But it still seems a little odd to see these two particular films highlighted in this way.

Oh, how were the films themselves? Okay, but not great, I thought. Stone of Destiny is a bit rote and perfunctory in some ways, and shamelessly Scottish-nationalist to boot; but it tells a story I had never heard before, which has to count for something, and the night of the heist itself is an amusing series of errors and near-misses. Fifty Dead Men Walking is more of a jumble, with its relentlessly brutal depiction of Belfast’s streets, its seemingly indestructible protagonist, and its fitful explication of the political landscape; but it has its moments, too.

Billy: The Early Years — the review’s up!

My review of Billy: The Early Years is now up at CT Movies. I may post a slightly different version here later.

Review: Happy-Go-Lucky (dir. Mike Leigh, 2008)

Happiness is an elusive quality in a Mike Leigh film. Sometimes, in his films, you will meet characters who try to cheer other people up, but there is usually a darker side to their perkiness. The photographer who tries to get people to smile in Secrets and Lies is stressed out by conflicts within his family; the woman who provides illegal abortions in Vera Drake naively tells her clients they will all be “right as rain” after she has left, and is caught off-guard when one of them almost dies thanks to her efforts; and when Gilbert & Sullivan premiere their latest musical comedy in Topsy-Turvy, a depressed Gilbert responds to the applause by privately grumbling to his neglected wife, “There’s something inherently disappointing about success.”

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Review: Billy: The Early Years (dir. Robby Benson, 2008)

Billy Graham has appeared in many movies over the years, most of them produced by World Wide Pictures, the movie studio that he founded through his evangelistic ministry in the 1950s. But apart from a handful of parodies, no actor has ever played him before, and certainly no film has tried to show what kind of person he was prior to becoming the internationally recognized preacher that he is today. So there was lots of fertile ground for Billy: The Early Years, the first major Graham biopic, to explore. Too bad, then, that the film does such a poor job of bringing his story to life.

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Yet another movie not screened for critics?

Quarantine, a horror movie produced by Screen Gems, opens today, and as of this morning, there are only four reviews posted at Rotten Tomatoes — none of them by major outlets — and no reviews whatsoever at Metacritic. So, it looks like this is another one for the “no advance press screenings” file.