The Golden Compass received a chilly reception in U.S. theaters during its opening weekendThe epic fantasy film The Golden Compass, based on the first book in British author Philip Pullman’s trilogy of novels "His Dark Materials," opened very weakly at the U.S. box office over the weekend. The film, which cost $180 million to produce, finished number one among U.S. releases last weekend but brought in just $26.1 million during its all-important opening weekend.

Comparable films The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (also 2001) captured much bigger audiences during their opening weekends six years ago, totaling receipts of $47.2 million and $90.3 million, respectively.

New Line, which released The Golden Compass, had expected $30-40 million during the first weekend.

The film’s performance is revealed as even poorer when one consdiers the very weak competition it was facing. The top 12 films earned $73 million last weekend, 12 percent less than the comparable term last year.

Image from The Golden Compass filmIn addition to an awareness among Christians that the book series on which the film was based is profoundly anti-religious and anti-Christian cannot have helped the film’s prospects, but probably even more damaging was the unenthusiastic reviews the film received from professional critics. had it at 51 on a scale of 100—which means it was just ahead of Fred Claus and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium and below  the critically not acclaimed The Mist and Bee Movie. The Rotten Tomatoes website measured it even lower, at 44 out of a hundred.

It’s important to note that Christian organizatins did not attempt in any way to keep the film from being released. In a fairly informative but rather disorganized review on National Review Online, Emily Karrs notes that what did the film the most harm was the producers’ decision to excise the anti-Christian elements of the story:

What is notable is that most of the outraged buzz circulating about the movie did not ask it to be banished from the screen. In fact, the opening line of one of the most widely circulated e-mails mildly states, “If you decide that you do not want to support something like this, I suggest that you boycott the movie and the books.” . . .

It was the studios that chose to water down the potency of Pullman’s message so it could appeal to a broader audience. This word of warning to fanatics of the series: Keep in mind that the Christians did not kill The Golden Compass. It committed suicide.

New Line hopes that good "word of mouth" among customers will strengthen the film’s performance in coming weeks. The film did well in Britain last weekend, scoring $18 million, and in Spain and France ($10 million and $5 million, respectively), but that won’t help New Line because the studio reportedly sold foreign distribution rights in order to raise most of the film’s production budget.

Image from Enchanted filmIn all, New Line will probably turn a profit on the film, but it is unlikely to be a decent moneymaker for the studio, and certainly a vast distance from the performance of the "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" series. 

Unless the film’s U.S. box office strength improves, sequels based on the other two novels in the series are very much in doubt, as the producers of the film had made future installments contingent on the first one making a solid profit. That now seems unlikely to happen.

Disney, on the other hand, has a solid hit with its comic fantasy Enchanted, which finished number 2 on the weekend with a take of $10.7 million, for a total of $83.9 million so far.