Narnia is turning out to be a magical place at the multiplex, too.
In its debut weekend, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" grossed $67.1 million, exceeding both industry projections and the initial weekends for the first two "Lord of the Rings" films. Disney said its $180-million adaptation of the C.S. Lewis children's book about a magical land populated by talking creatures and an evil witch played strongly across the country, attracting a surprisingly large number of adults without children. (Not enough, though, to reverse the industry's sluggish box office, which is still on track to fall about 6% short of last year.)
"The movie is playing to everybody," said Chuck Viane, Disney's distribution president. "We always knew it would. But thinking something would happen and seeing it come together are two very different things."
While the studio said Sunday it did not have data on how many ticket buyers were attracted by the film's Christian themes (the story's lion, Aslan, sacrifices himself to save four children, only to be resurrected to vanquish evil), anecdotal evidence suggested faith communities turned out in droves.
Lake Forest's Saddleback Church took over 13 theaters for pre-opening "Narnia" screenings; of the 20,000 group-sales tickets purchased, all but 4,000 were sold to church members and friends. The rest were donated to local police groups, children's hospitals, elementary schools, shelters for abused children, and Christian radio stations as giveaways.
"We wanted to create an 'event,' " said Saddleback pastor Tom Holladay, who saw a rough cut of the film two months ago. "And we wanted to stand up and support 'Narnia.' Churches boycott movies they don't like and it's more valuable to be positive. Hollywood knows it needs to be making more of this type of picture."
Costa Mesa's Harbor Trinity Church also climbed aboard the "Narnia" bandwagon. Senior associate pastor Ric Olsen rented a theater Thursday night, booking 600 seats on two screens. In addition to e-mailing his congregation about the movie, Olsen, who was part of Disney's grass-roots "Narnia" campaign, posted signs about the screening outside the church.
Olsen also preached a three-part sermon series pegged to "Narnia's" release. "This weekend, I'm talking about evil and temptation, handing out Turkish delight candy," he said. "That's what Narnia's white witch uses to bribe Edmund into betraying his brothers and sister."
Larry Ross, a Dallas-based media and public relations consultant who worked on both "Narnia" and "The Passion of the Christ," said "Narnia's" intensive marketing campaign created demand.
"Mel Gibson struck a nerve in Hollywood," Ross said of the maker of "The Passion of the Christ." "Hollywood is realizing that the church -- and the nearly 250 million Americans who consider themselves 'Christian' -- represent a previously unrecognized market."
At Asbury College, a small Christian university in Kentucky, Lewis scholar and English professor Devin Brown took a group of students and friends to an early "Narnia" screening. He said the audience included Christians and non-Christians, old and young, academics and non-academics.
"The books are enjoyed and beloved just as much by nonbelievers as by believers," said Brown, the author of "Inside Narnia: A Guide to Exploring 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.'" "We had a number of nonbeliever friends, and they loved the movie."
Disney already was tentatively developing a sequel, based on the Lewis book "Prince Caspian." Those sequel plans now will progress with greater momentum, the studio said.
Disney and "Narnia" producing partner Walden Media, both of whom have suffered through a difficult year at the box office, might not have a lot of time to enjoy "Narnia's" being in first place. On Wednesday, writer-director Peter Jackson's "King Kong" remake opens nationally.
Still, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe's" opening did top two of Jackson's last three debuts. His first "Lord of the Rings" movie grossed $47.2 million in its 2001 debut weekend, and the second sold $62 million in its first weekend in 2002. The final, best picture-winning "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" from 2003, grossed $72.6 million in its debut.
"Narnia" also opened robustly overseas, grossing a combined $40 million in 14 countries, with a number of key markets -- including Japan -- opening later. In the United Kingdom, "Narnia" grossed the equivalent of $16 million, topping Disney's British opening record of $12.3 million set by 2003's "Finding Nemo." "Narnia" was also a draw in countries less familiar with Lewis' books, including Spain ($7.5 million), Germany ($6 million) and Mexico ($6 million).
Several other new movies opened with impressive limited releases.
Playing in a total of eight theaters in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto, filmmaker Rob Marshall's adaptation of "Memoirs of a Geisha" grossed $674,000 in its debut, for a solid $84,250 a theater. Sony domestic distribution president Rory Bruer said that the film's audience was 57% female and mostly under 35. "Geisha," which had a solid weekend debut of about $2 million in Japan, will add more U.S. theaters over the coming weeks until it is playing nationally by Dec. 23.
The more striking news among new films in limited release, however, was the remarkable opening for "Brokeback Mountain." Playing in only five theaters in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, director Ang Lee's cowboy love story grossed $544,549, or $108,910 a location.
Jack Foley, the distribution president for "Brokeback" maker Focus Features, said the per-screen averages were the highest he had seen since Disney used to debut its animated musicals in select venues such as the El Capitan Theatre and Radio City Music Hall with inflated ticket prices.
The movie was doing especially well, Foley said, in attracting straight men. "Men did show up, beyond the gay core [audience], with their girlfriends and their wives," Foley said.
The next test will be whether the film can play as strongly elsewhere, as it slowly moves into wider release. Foley said "Brokeback" will be released so slowly it might not reach all of the country until the end of January.
In the first important awards organization decision of the year, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. on Saturday named "Brokeback Mountain" the year's best film and Lee the year's top director.
In its first weekend of wide release, "Syriana" played well, but Judi Dench in "Mrs. Henderson Presents" didn't cause a big box-office stir.
Preliminary results (in millions) based on studio projections.
*--* Movie 3-day Total gross The Chronicles of Narnia: $67.1 $67.1 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Syriana 12.0 13.5
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire 10.3 244.1
Walk the Line 5.8 77.0
Yours, Mine and Ours 5.2 40.9
Aeon Flux 4.6 20.3
Just Friends 3.9 26.5
Pride & Prejudice 2.5 26.4
Chicken Little 2.3 127.2
Rent 2.0 26.9
Source: Nielsen EDI Inc.
Los Angeles Times