The end of Walden?

The end of Walden? October 11, 2008

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.

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