No one in Hollywood quite knows where "The Golden Compass" is pointing, though it appears to be south of blockbuster status.


New Line Cinema hopes its action-adventure fantasy epic, opening today at 3,528 theaters in the U.S. and Canada, launches the genre's next lucrative franchise.

"From the very beginning we have been positioning this as a big-event movie in the same league with 'The Chronicles of Narnia,' 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Harry Potter,' " said Chris Carlisle, the studio's president of domestic marketing.

But New Line, mired in a slump since the last chapter in the "Rings" trilogy came out in late 2003, could be in for a reality check.

The PG-13 movie, starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and newcomer Dakota Blue Richards as the preteen heroine, is sure to rank No. 1 this weekend at the box office. Based on the first book in British author Philip Pullman's controversial "His Dark Materials" trilogy, the film had looked so imposing that rival studios steered clear, leaving "The Golden Compass" as this weekend's only wide opener.

Yet unlike "Narnia" or the "Rings" and "Potter" movies, most of which hauled in more than $60 million in their first three days, "Compass" may open in the $30-million neighborhood, or worse, according to market analysts. Several films with year-end awards buzz, including the romance "Atonement" and the quirky comedy "Juno," open today in limited release with their distributors hoping to build box-office momentum and eventually crack the top 10.

Reviews for "The Golden Compass" have been mixed and consumer tracking surveys of potential moviegoers indicate high awareness of the film, but only moderate "definite interest" among parents and children.

That wouldn't indicate the kind of bonanza Time Warner Inc.'s New Line was hoping for with writer-director Chris Weitz's costly project. The "Rings," "Potter" and "Narnia" movies all reaped more than $700 million in global box-office receipts during their runs -- and then there's the gold mine in DVD sales.

At the same time, if "The Golden Compass" heads south, it's unlikely to spell financial catastrophe for New Line.

The studio admits to a production price of $180 million, though some industry insiders believe the true cost soared past $200 million because of special effects and a retooled ending. That doesn't include the tens of millions New Line is spending to market it.

Even so, the film was cofinanced by Royal Bank of Scotland, and British tax incentives and presales of foreign distribution rights covered about two-thirds of the production cost, New Line says. The deals may limit New Line's risk, but also cap its upside: Fantasy films usually take in the majority of their ticket sales abroad, and "The Golden Compass" is off to a jolly good start in Britain, where it opened Wednesday.

If the film becomes a hit, the studio will launch two sequels based on Pullman's series. That remains a big "if" for several reasons, including a complex plot, industry analysts say. New Line says it will wait to see how "Compass" performs before deciding on the follow-ups.

The story traces a 12-year-old girl's trek to a parallel universe, where she gets embroiled in an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. The characters are shadowed by their own "daemons," or talking animal companions that represent their souls.

Reviewers have been dazzled by the effects, but many are underwhelmed by the story. The review compendium website MetaCritic.com listed 50% of notices as positive, while rival RottenTomatoes.com reported 47% were bullish.

One marketing hurdle for New Line is that Pullman's world is much less known than the Middle-earth of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" books, which after decades in the marketplace had a widespread and loyal fan base. Last weekend, New Line held "sneak preview" screenings at 873 theaters to build word of mouth, and said fans were cheering during such scenes as an armored bear fight. This week, as part of the final marketing blitz, the studio posted the film's first five minutes on Yahoo.com.

Another headache for New Line is the ire Pullman's books have whipped up among some religious groups.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights called for a boycott of the movie in October, saying Pullman's books portray the church as evil and promote "candy-coated atheism." Weitz toned down the religious aspects in his adaptation, but the group's William Donohue warned parents that the movie would steer children to the novels. Focus on the Family joined the attack with an online article headlined "Sympathy for the Devil."

Pullman, an avowed agnostic, has said his books promote free thought. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offered a similar perspective in its review of the film, calling it a "generalized rejection of authoritarianism" and "intelligent and well-crafted entertainment."

But the ruckus may actually end up boosting the movie, said Karen Covell, director of the Hollywood Prayer Network. "The more riled up everybody becomes, the more publicity the movie gets," she said. "It just ends up helping at the box office."

Similar disputes failed to dent the theological thriller "The Da Vinci Code" or the five "Harry Potter" movies, the biggest-grossing franchise in history. Still, one key to the popularity of "Narnia" was its backing from Christians, who embraced what they saw as Biblical allegory.

Fantasy fatigue is another potential pitfall. New Line revived the genre with its "Rings" trilogy, but other studios jumped on the bandwagon and now fantasy spectacles seem almost as common as romantic comedies. Several fantasy films this year have foundered, including "The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising," whose worldwide box office totaled $30 million.

With "Atonement," Focus Features is echoing the gradual release strategy that worked with its December 2005 film "Brokeback Mountain," the gay cowboy drama that won three Oscars and took in $178 million at the box office. "Atonement," opening at 32 theaters, stars Keira Knightley and James McAvoy as lovers caught up in a crime mystery.

Fox Searchlight's "Juno," which opened Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles, could be another hipster magnet in the vein of "Little Miss Sunshine," "Garden State" and "Napoleon Dynamite," all from the same company. The dark comedy about a pregnant teen is winning raves, especially for star Ellen Page and screenwriter Diablo Cody.

Weinstein Co. has long been high on "Grace Is Gone," starring John Cusack as a man whose soldier wife is killed in the Iraq war, which opens at four theaters. Co-founder Harvey Weinstein snagged the rights for $4 million after a bidding war during January's Sundance Film Festival that went until 4:30 a.m., declaring: "The company got its groove back last night."

josh.friedman@latimes.com