'Compass' plots course to No. 1

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also unspooling in 27 international territories. Eight territories getting the film Wednesday rung up an encouraging $4.2 million, including an impressive $1.9 million from 502 U.K. playdates.

Based on the first book in the "Dark Materials" trilogy, "Compass" has generated decent buzz among prospective moviegoers amid early reviews that have been good if not great. Yet press coverage has included a controversy over quasireligious aspects of the material.

Rated PG-13, "Compass" surely will skew young, with younger males and females showing equal film awareness in prerelease tracking surveys. Must-see interest in the effects-laden fantasy actioner is a bit wobbly, but that so-so youth interest should be bolstered by adult appeal keying on a cast featuring Nicole Kidman in a villainous role and Ian McKellen voicing a polar bear.

"It's truly a family film," New Line distribution president David Tuckerman said. "We feel it's going to be very successful."

The studio held 873 sneak previews of "Compass" in the U.S. and Canada, with execs touting near-capacity audiences and even sellouts in many markets. A snowstorm in the Midwest put a damper on sneaks in several markets.

Much has been made of the thematic similarity of "Golden Compass" and Disney's "The Chronicles of Narnia." And the first "Narnia," whose success already has prompted a pair of sequel productions, also was a holiday release.

The PG-rated "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" opened Dec. 9, 2005, with $65.6 million in domestic boxoffice — a figure considered well out of reach for "Compass."

"We should do somewhere between $30 million-$40 million," estimated Rolf Mittweg, New Line's president and COO worldwide distribution and marketing.

Commercial appeal aside, there also is a distinct difference between "Narnia" and "Compass": The former was embraced by church groups, while the latter has been vilified in some of the same corners. That's largely because the books' young heroine — portrayed in the film by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards — is entrapped in a battle of good and evil, with a Catholic Church-like entity called the Magisterium depicted as a bastion of evil.

Director Chris Weitz has stressed that the film downplays the books' religious references, but the 350,000-member Catholic League has been sending out leaflets criticizing the film, and the U.S. Conference of Bishops has decried "Compass" for "anti-clerical subtext."

Despite such distractions, tracking has shown a definite improvement over the past week.

"The tracking services have had a hard time tracking this movie," Mittweg said. "There probably hasn't been a movie carried by a teenage girl heroine since 'The Wizard of Oz.' "

"Compass" is this frame's sole wide opener, and last weekend only MGM/Weinstein Co.'s "Awake" unspooled wide, with a weak bow of $5.9 million. So the market could be ready for a big new title. Notable limited bows this weekend include Universal/Working Title's Keira Knightley starrer "Atonement," arriving amid expectations of possible awards-season attention; Fox Searchlight's buzz film "Juno," which has attracted great early reviews; and MGM/Weinstein Co.'s John Cusack starrer "Grace Is Gone," getting positive notices for the topliner's performance.

Meanwhile, if "Compass" clicks big with moviegoers, it will work to support those who argued that the poor fall boxoffice was just a seasonal blip and that the year still can close strongly. Indeed, Disney's "Enchanted" has been enchanting for the distributor, and many big titles are still set to unspool by year's end.

But last weekend's boxoffice marked a fourth consecutive downtick in year-over-year industry grosses, and 10 of the past 11 frames have similarly underperformed in yearly comparisons. That's started to shave year-to-date gains posted throughout a strong summer, with 2007 now just 4.8% ahead of last year's comparable period.
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