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By Dean Goodman
LOS ANGELES, May 18 (Reuters) - For the second consecutive weekend, a major Hollywood film fell short of expectations at the box office on Sunday, providing a wobbly start for the lucrative summer moviegoing season in North America.
Walt Disney Co’s (DIS.N) “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” the second film in a series based on the “Narnia” books by C.S. Lewis, opened at No. 1 with estimated three-day sales of $56.6 million, the company said.
Industry analysts had expected an opening in the $80 million range, and certainly a figure above the $65.6 million start for the film’s 2005 predecessor, “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.”
Disney said it was happy with the opening and that the picture had established a strong position ahead of next weekend’s four-day U.S. Memorial Day holiday as well as the summer school holidays.
The opening was nowhere near as weak as that for “Speed Racer” last weekend. Warner Bros. Pictures’ $160 million kids flick crashed to a dismal $18.6 million during its first three days. This weekend, it was down one place to No. 4 with $7.6 million and has earned $29.8 million to date.
The summer season, which accounts for about 40 percent of the industry’s annual sales, kicked off two weekends ago with Marvel Entertainment Inc’s MVL.N surprise smash “Iron Man,” which has earned $222.5 million to date. This weekend, the superhero saga slipped to No. 2 with $31.2 million.
“Other than ‘Iron Man,’ I just don’t see the audience getting that excited,” said box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media By Numbers.
“Prince Caspian” will likely enjoy only a brief reign since director Steven Spielberg’s high-wattage adventure “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” opens on Thursday. The film, long shrouded in secrecy, was shown to excited journalists at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday.
Hollywood could do with a few big hits. Overall sales fell for the second time in three weekends, according to Media By Numbers. The top 12 films tallied $125.5 million, down 27 percent from the year-ago period, when “Shrek the Third” opened at No. 1 with $122 million.
So far this year, ticket sales are down 3.7 percent, Media By Numbers said. More ominously, fewer people are going to the movies. Attendance is down 6.4 percent.
“Prince Caspian” stars newcomer Ben Barnes in the title role as a valiant warrior who joins forces with the four Pevensie children from the first film to battle an evil uncle. Both films were directed by New Zealander Andrew Adamson, a veteran of the “Shrek” series.
Critics were not enthused by the new film, with 66 percent of top reviewers giving their approval, according to Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com), a Web site that collates reviews. The first "Narnia" film garnered a 78 percent rating.
“Prince Caspian” also opened at No. 1 in each of its 12 new foreign markets, led by Mexico ($7.5 million), Russia ($5.6 million) and South Korea ($3.5 million). The international rollout will be staged to coincide with school holidays in each market, Disney said.
The “Narnia” series is co-produced by Walden Media, a film company owned by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz. Work is under way on a third film, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” with British documentary veteran Michael Apted stepping in for Adamson, who will serve as a producer.
“Indiana Jones” will be distributed by Viacom Inc’s VIAb.N Paramount Pictures, which is also handling “Iron Man” for Marvel. Warner Bros. is a unit of Time Warner Inc TWX.N. (Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by Bill Trott)