"The Golden Compass" topped the weekend box office with an estimated $26.1 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales, New Line Cinema said Sunday, although the costly fantasy film struck less gold than the studio had expected.
The picture, seen as the start of a potential blockbuster franchise in the "Lord of the Rings" vein, got a warmer welcome overseas, pulling in $55 million abroad for a worldwide total of $81 million, New Line said.
"We were hoping for a little better domestically but the international numbers were solid," said Rolf Mittweg, New Line's president and chief operating officer of worldwide distribution and marketing.
As of last week, the studio had been looking for a North American opening in the range of $30 million to $40 million for the film from writer-director Chris Weitz.
The PG-13 movie, based on the first book in British author Philip Pullman's acclaimed "His Dark Materials" trilogy, was the only wide release to hit the marketplace, and it set the pace for another dismal weekend at the box office overall.
Results were down from the corresponding weekend in 2006 for the fifth straight time, according to Media by Numbers. It was not the kind of news Hollywood was hoping for in the face of an increasingly bitter writers strike that looks as though it could drag on for months.
Walt Disney Co.'s modern-day fairy tale "Enchanted" held up firmly in its third weekend, taking in an estimated $10.7 million to rank No. 2. The mix of animation and live action, starring Amy Adams, has racked up $83.9 million through three weekends.
With the holiday season in high gear, two Christmas-themed movies are continuing to attract family audiences. Sony Pictures' ensemble drama "This Christmas" and Warner Bros.' comedy "Fred Claus" came in third and fourth with about $5 million apiece, based on studio estimates.
New Line acknowledges spending $180 million to make "The Golden Compass," starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, although industry sources speculate that the picture's true cost soared above $200 million in postproduction.
Reviews have been mixed for the film, about a 12-year-old girl who journeys to a parallel universe to save her best friend and other kidnapped children from experiments conducted by a mysterious organization.
Whatever the picture's cost, New Line hedged its bets by selling off foreign distribution rights, the same strategy the studio has used with "The Lord of the Rings" and, for that matter, most of its major productions.
Mittweg said that between those foreign territory sales and the eventual revenue from the DVD and television markets, New Line could turn a profit on the picture. "It looks like we're going to come out ahead," he said.
Even so, Mittweg was noncommittal about the studio's tentative plans to make two sequels, "The Subtle Knife" and "The Amber Spyglass," based on the rest of Pullman's series.
"It's impossible for us to talk about sequels at this point," he said. "It all depends on the grosses."
He noted that "The Golden Compass" had yet to open in 30 foreign territories, including Japan, Italy and Australia.
Still, "Compass" will soon face fierce competition for broad audiences.
Several big holiday season movies are coming, including the Will Smith thriller "I Am Legend" this Friday and the Nicolas Cage sequel "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" on Dec. 21.
If "Compass" falls off sharply, it could end up generating less than $100 million in domestic ticket sales -- a result that would be seen as a major embarrassment for New Line.
But if the movie holds up respectably, especially overseas, it could rake in about $400 million worldwide. That wouldn't make it a blockbuster like "The Chronicles of Narnia" or the "Lord of the Rings" or "Harry Potter" films, but it would be far from disastrous.
Despite New Line's two hits this year with the musical "Hairspray" and the action-comedy "Rush Hour 3," the studio has struggled with most of its slate.
The disappointing opening for "Compass" will probably spark renewed speculation about the studio's future under corporate parent Time Warner Inc., which also owns Warner Bros.
"In an increasingly difficult film environment, Time Warner needs to collapse New Line into Warner Bros.," Richard Greenfield, an analyst at Pali Research in New York, said Sunday. "It's making less and less sense to have duplicate overhead."
Profits at most Hollywood studios have suffered in the last three years as DVD sales, which helped fuel growth during the late 1990s and earlier this decade, have flattened.
Unlike specialty divisions at other studios, such as Disney's Miramax and News Corp.'s Fox Searchlight, New Line focuses on mainstream fare rather than art-house titles, so it is seen as similar to its larger sibling, Warner Bros.
Among the weekend's limited releases, Fox Searchlight's quirky comedy "Juno" and the British romance "Atonement," from Universal Pictures' Focus Features arm, got off to promising starts.
"Juno," which opened Wednesday, averaged $60,000 per theater at seven locations in New York and Los Angeles.
"Juno," starring Ellen Page as a pregnant teenager, will be rolled out in the coming weeks and reach more than 1,000 theaters on Christmas Day.
"Atonement," starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, averaged $25,000 per theater at 32 locations nationwide.
With critics raving about both movies, success at the box office could help thrust them into the mix for Oscars and other year-end awards.