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"Golden Compass" loses its way at box office

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - “The Golden Compass,” a $180 million family fantasy starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, failed to direct the masses to movie theaters.

The movie underperformed at the North American box office, opening at No. 1, but with weekend ticket sales of just $26.1 million, distributor New Line Cinema said on Sunday.

The struggling unit of Time Warner Inc had hoped the film would pull in between $30 million and $40 million during its first three days.

“It’s a little bit disappointing,” said Rolf Mittweg, president and chief operating officer of New Line’s worldwide distribution and marketing operations.

The film’s poor opening combined with a generally weak field to send overall year-on-year sales down for the fifth consecutive weekend, according to tracking firm Media By Numbers.

The top 12 films earned $73 million, down 12 percent from last year. Year-to-date sales stand at $8.8 billion, up 4 percent from last year, Media By Numbers said. But attendance is flat, indicating that higher ticket prices driving growth.

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“The Golden Compass” is not the only big-budget film to stumble at the box office recently. The $150 million warrior epic “Beowulf,” currently at No. 5 with $4.4 million, has earned $76 million after four weeks. The film’s Viacom Inc -owned distributor, Paramount Pictures, hopes it will reach $100 million.

On the other hand, Walt Disney Co has a hit with “Enchanted,” which slipped to No. 2 with $10.7 million after two weeks at No. 1. The fairy-tale romance has earned $83.9 million to date, and observers expect it to reach $150 million. Disney does not disclose movie budgets.

“The Golden Compass” was the only new release in the top 10. Based on the first book in British author Philip Pullman’s acclaimed children’s series “His Dark Materials,” writer/director Chris Weitz’s film is set in an alternate world ruled by an oppressive religious authority.

Mittweg said exit polls were favorable, but declined to go into detail. He hoped word of mouth would help the film in coming weeks, especially with school holidays starting. “It’s all about longevity,” he said.

The film also earned $55 million from 25 international territories, including No. 1 starts in Britain ($18 million), Spain ($10 million) and France ($5 million), all after five days of release.

But Mittweg said New Line sold off the foreign rights, with proceeds covering about 60 percent of the film’s budget. Taking into account outside investors and tax breaks, he said New Line was covered for about 70 to 80 percent of the budget, and the film would be profitable for the studio.

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Holiday comedies took the No. 3 and No. 4 spots. Sony Corp’s “This Christmas” held at No. 3 with $5.0 million, giving it a $42.8 million total after three weeks. Warner Bros’ “Fred Claus” rose two to No. 4 with $4.7 million; it has tallied $65.6 million after five weeks.

The best performer in limited release was the comedy “Juno,” starring Canadian actress Ellen Page as a pregnant teen. It earned about $420,000 from a total of seven theaters in New York and Los Angeles. The film’s News Corp-owned distributor, Fox Searchlight, said it would expand the movie over the next few weeks before going national on January 4.

Also starting well was the period drama “Atonement,” starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. The Focus Features release earned $815,000 from 32 theaters in 17 cities. Focus is a unit of General Electric Co’s NBC Universal.

“Grace is Gone” got off to a poor start with $14,000 from four theaters, the latest Iraq war-themed drama to fail at the box office. The Weinstein Co, a closely held firm run by former Miramax Films chiefs Bob and Harvey Weinstein, paid $4 million for the rights to the John Cusack film after a bidding war at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Editing by Eric Walsh