The Shallow End: Who Broke ‘The Golden Compass’?

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Stamp the official box-office-dud seal now: The Golden Compass bombed so bad it makes New Line Cinema look like the Enola Gay. And of course everyone and their daemon are pointing fingers every which way they can. Yet, what twists my gonads the most are the jackasses taking credit for The Golden Compass‘ box-office mushroom cloud. That’s right, I speak of the Catholic League – the knee-jerk, think-police organization boycotting The Golden Compass in four-alarm panic because the kiddies might question God’s existence when confronted with the godlessness that is Nicole Kidman’s plastic mug and everything it comes with (see Brad’s astute dissection of this topic by clicking HERE).

Really, it’s no shocker the Catholic League is pretending to have slit the throat of the 7-headed, 10-horned, $250 million budgeted beast – just to postpone Armageddon for another day so us sinners have more time to repent (thank you Catholic League, you’re ooooh so heroic and thoughtful). The organization and its leader Bill Donahue are top-tier, second only to Paris Hilton publicity whores, the dirty suck-for-a-buck publicity whore.

Here’s a bit of cookie-fortune wisdom: As long as an entertainment product is widely available, controversy can and will sell it. Ask Mel Gibson and Michael Moore. Yet, this thing with the Catholic League and The Golden Compass felt like a minor dustup compared to the media shit storms over The Passion of The Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11. So the hullabaloo surrounding the film probably produced neutral results. A few avoided the movie, and a few were drawn to it because of the boycott. So while New Line execs are dropping bullets in the chamber and mapping a shot trajectory for their skulls, their thoughts must be obsessing over the “What If?”

“What if we had had just anonymously contributed some marketing dollars to the Catholic League’s boycott? Why that would have guaranteed $50 million on opening weekend.” BAM!!! Splat!! Thud! And Douche bag Donahue gleefully grabs credit for the mass suicide at New Line.

Seriously, the Catholic League causing The Golden Compass‘ crash is like holding Al-Qaeda accountable for the 10 nickels Lions for Lambs, Rendition and In the Valley of Elah made altogether. It’s a bullshit argument, plain and simple.

Give me a well-tailored suit, a shoddy toupee, a 7-figure salary, and let me play Mr. Studio Exec for a moment, one with a brain that is, so I can tell you what went wrong with The Golden Compass. It wasn’t the Catholic League nor the lack of bankable stars (sorry Danny Craig, I love yah, but James Bond is a moneymaker, you aren’t and neither are you Ms. Kidman and as The Invasion proved in August, you two definitely aren’t when put together). Sure as shit had nothing to do with its release date. And no, the fantasy genre is not dead. It’s a pretty simple reason actually: a piss-poor trailer and a piss-poor movie.

A film’s success is built upon a 4-prong structure: release date/competition (the most mysterious element to nail); star power (having a star doesn’t guarantee a dump truck of Benjamins – unless it’s Will “$76.5 Million” Smith who could open Phone Book: The Movie to $50 mil – but it doesn’t hurt, after all, my mother will go to any movie with Denzel Washington and I’ll pay to see anything with Bronson Pinchot); film quality (I know I know, tons of shitty movies make more cash than a college bookstore, but excellent movies tend to have strong legs); marketing (a good trailer is ultimately the most important element for box-office victory). Yes, a few other mitigating factors can drop or boost a film’s box-office potential, but those four cover the bulk, and a movie probably needs at least two of these ingredients for some bank.

Of those four, The Golden Compass only had the noncompetitive release date working for it. However, the low star wattage isn’t a big deal when it comes to fantasy epics. So that leaves the film’s quality and marketing as suspects.

Let’s look at the trailer. Before the New Line logo even appears, one-third of the preview is awkward exposition setting up the rules of the world – witches, polar bears, and animal souls, oh my! Then, there’s a disjointed transition into dialogue-heavy scenes of Kidman and the astonishingly unlikable Dakota Blue Richards (I really don’t get why the most negative reviews still give her kudos) scored with a soft, generic score. Next we see Kidman’s nasty baboon dishing out a weird-ass beat down. And the rest of the trailer is a muddle of boring dialogue, platitudes and unconvincing CGI (for $250 million, you’d think the filmmakers could give us something more realistic than Coke Cola polar bears with rabies). Bottom line: the trailer is a mess.

Fellowship of the Ring wrote the playbook on selling a complex fantasy epic. Simplify the exposition (evil doers seek a ring that’ll bring darkness over the world; luckily the good guys have found it). Tell us the stakes (destroy the ring or we’ll all die). Reiterate what’s at stake (seriously, destroy that ring or we’re screwed). Give us money shots and exciting dialogue galore (“You shall not pass!!!!), all scored to bombastic trailer music.

Honestly, that’s a sound method in selling almost any event film. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe followed it perfectly and rolled in a zillion dollars, so why in the hell didn’t New Line execute the tried and true blueprints they created 6 years ago? Other than being a tonal mess, the trailer doesn’t sell us very hard on what’s at stake – freedom or something? It’s a total “meh” feeling.

And “meh” was exactly the response come opening weekend. “Meh” to the tune of $25 million. Um yeah, not good for a $250 million tent-pole flick. But contrary to popular belief, those sorts of numbers don’t necessarily spell d-o-o-m; remember now, Titanic opened to less than $30 million. If director Chris Weitz had actually made a stirring film, as opposed to the choppy snore-a-rama we got, word of mouth would have perhaps created legs. And maybe we’d be talking about the already arrived viral marketing for The Subtle Knife. Unfortunately, critics and audiences agreed on the movie’s high level of suckitude, which translates to a number such as 65% second weekend box-office drop, and that my friend spells d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r when your quarter-billion dollar investment only scratched $25 million bucks the weekend before.

Will New Line survive after this? Who knows? Assuming they have any cash left some good could come of “The Great Golden Compass Implosion” of 2007. Maybe, just maybe, New Line might pay what it owes Peter Jackson and pals for The Lord of the Rings and then hand over every remaining dime to Jackson so he can get The Hobbit made in time to save the studio. That’s me being optimistic. Very optimistic. More than likely New Line will go the way of Orion, and The Hobbit will be directed by Len Wiseman (now that’s a boycott I could get behind).