- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2009

Twentieth Century Fox yesterday swooped in like a fantasy novel’s knight in shining armor to save “The Chronicles of Narnia.” The company signed on to co-produce “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” the third film in the series based on the beloved children’s novels by C.S. Lewis.

The franchise’s future had been in doubt when Disney last month dropped the series it had co-produced with Walden Media. Walden - owned by conservative Christian businessman Philip Anschutz and responsible for smaller-scale family hits including “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “Nim’s Island” - owns the rights to the seven-book series.

Whether Fox can learn from Disney’s mistakes and reinvigorate a family franchise that’s at the very center of debates about commerce, culture and religion is something about which observers disagree.

Then again, only in Hollywood could a product that racks up a cool $420 million worldwide be considered, in some eyes, a failure.

That’s just how Disney saw the performance of the series’ second film. The first, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” was an unqualified success. The Christmas 2005 fantasy cost $180 million to make and raked in $745 million worldwide. “Prince Caspian,” released in May 2008, cost $225 million but only made $420 million. That still seems like a tidy sum, though, and it’s more than any other Disney film made last year, except for the critical and commercial darling “WallcE.”

“Prince Caspian” also was the year’s ninth-best-selling DVD in the United States. It sold more than 5 million copies, adding almost $83 million to its take - and it just came out Dec. 2.

Fox’s move ensures that fans will once again be able to travel to Narnia. Still, that Disney would drop a franchise that has grossed almost $1.2 billion in its theatrical runs alone has observers speculating on what happened to the property that was poised to replace “Harry Potter” as Hollywood’s one sure thing.

Some have mused that there was bad blood between Disney and Mr. Anschutz after the latter renegotiated the contract following “Lion’s” smashing success. Disney could not be reached for this story; the parting was “certainly amicable,” according to Walden Senior Vice President for Marketing Heather Phillips.

“It was really just a budgetary issue. We just weren’t coming to an agreement,” she says, declining to elaborate further.

When asked why she thinks “Caspian” didn’t do nearly as well as “Lion,” Ms. Phillips states the only certain thing about the affair: “Hindsight is 20-20.”

She adds that “You could look at the release date, you could look at whether that story was the most compelling out of all of them.”

“Lion” did big business during the family-friendly Christmas season, but fans had to wait 2 1/2 years for “Caspian.” Disney thought the second film was a darker tale that could attract a teenage audience in May.

Nationally syndicated radio host Michael Medved thinks that was Disney’s biggest mistake. “There’s an attempt by major studios to basically ignore Christmas. It’s very, very weird,” he says. “If you look at all the downbeat, Holocaust-themed movies, six of them were released around Christmas. I suspect ‘Prince Caspian’ would have done much better had it been released in the holiday season. It’s a time for family movies.”

Brandon Gray isn’t so sure. “The release date is important, but it can be an overrated factor. If the movie is strong enough, people will see it, regardless of when it is out,” says Mr. Gray, the founder and president of BoxOfficeMojo.com, an online box-office tracking service.

Conceding that family films tend to do better at Christmas, or in summer when children are out of school, Mr. Gray nevertheless thinks the bigger problem is that “Lion” is the best-known book of the series, while “Caspian” is barely known.

He also points to larger social factors at play. “The first Narnia and ‘The Passion of the Christ’ - that’s when, culturally, Christian groups were stronger or coming out of the woodwork. Those pictures benefited from that. And we saw that in the 2004 election,” he points out. In 2008, Narnia didn’t do as well - and neither did the Republican presidential candidate.

Mr. Gray can’t say whether “Caspian” was profitable, despite its take. Disney had to share profits with Walden, and the film had huge marketing costs. “It’s good that Disney is separating itself from ‘Narnia,’” he says. Disney is a very brand-focused studio, and, unlike its animated films or the recent live-action flick “Enchanted,” the “Narnia” films didn’t scream “Disney.”

“It just wasn’t a good fit,” Mr. Gray concludes. “What, are they going to re-enact the Passion of the Lion in a Disney theme park? ‘Stab the lion right on Main Street!’ Especially since Narnia is so overtly Christian, whereas Disney is more secular.”

David J. Theroux, president of the C.S. Lewis Society of California, complains that Disney ignored the fan base for just that reason. “They deliberately would not work with the people with a special interest in the film, whether it was people interested in Lewis’ work, or churches, or schools,” Mr. Theroux says. Disney’s big gross with “Lion,” he speculates, may have led it to take the books’ Christian fans for granted.

“I think the box-office receipts reflected the fact it was not as well-done as the first one,” Mr. Theroux adds. “This was a story about a boy in his early teens at most, and they turned it into a 25-year-old hunk. It lost a lot of its purpose because [the Lewis book] was really about a boy coming of age.”

Some critics were disturbed by the Hollywood flirtation inserted between this older Caspian and Susan, who in the book is just 13. Mr. Theroux suggests that the “Lord of the Rings” movies were so successful because they were faithful adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, while with “Caspian,” “Disney tried to jazz it up.”

Mr. Gray declares that “‘Narnia’ is a sinking ship” and predicts “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” will do even worse than “Caspian.”

Mr. Theroux thinks it will do even better, though, and so does Paul Martin, webmaster of NarniaFans.com. His Web site polled members about their favorite Narnia book, and “Voyage” came a very close second to “Lion,” while “Caspian” came in fifth.

Mr. Martin thinks Disney wanted to avoid the increasing Christian elements of the books: “I think that big studios are, for the most part, afraid of marketing to Christian audiences, even though we make up one third of the world’s population,” he says. He notes that Disney used Motive Entertainment - the marketing group that made “The Passion” a hit by taking it directly to church groups - to market “Lion,” but not “Caspian.”

While refraining from overtly criticizing Disney’s handling of “Caspian,” Walden President Michael Flaherty does note Disney made the decision to release it in May. Michael Apted is set to direct “Dawn Treader,” and Mr. Flaherty says it’s slated for a Christmas 2010 release. “When people think of ‘Narnia,’ inevitably our minds go to a lamppost and snowfall,” he says. “So it’s a better fit.”

While not commenting on Disney’s marketing, Mr. Flaherty suggests that Fox is a better fit for the franchise. “We have a great working relationship with Fox,” he says. “We got off to a great start with them on our first film, though it was a smaller movie, ‘Because of Winn-Dixie.’ Fox really let us do the specialty marketing with faith leaders and educational leaders and librarians and after-school groups like the Girl Scouts.”

In sum, Mr. Flaherty concludes, “They really value the grass-roots marketing.”

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