'Narnian' Delight: Passion of the 'Lion' Pays Off
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe helped melt a box office in winter. With a dose of broadly appealing fantasy based on C.S. Lewis' famous novel, overall business was up 15 percent from the comparable weekend last year, and, with King Kong looming, 2005 is poised to end on a high note despite being the first down box office year since 1991.

Playing on about 6,800 screens across 3,616 locations, Narnia drummed up $65.6 million, exceeding industry expectations in the $50 million range. The opening was the second-biggest ever for December behind The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King's $72.8 million and the third best start for distributor Buena Vista, behind The Incredibles and Finding Nemo.

Saturday exit polls by Buena Vista indicated that families made up 53 percent of Narnia's audience, and that 55 percent of moviegoers were under 25 years old and 52 percent were male. Audiences generally liked the picture, grading it an "A+" in CinemaScore's opening night surveys, which also showed that the "subject matter" was by far the top reason people saw the movie.

"No movie can do this kind of business on this weekend of the year without playing to everyone," said Chuck Viane, Buena Vista's head of distribution. "When you look at the balance of this film, every part of the country is playing at its potential."

Made for a reported $180 million budget, Narnia was a co-production between Buena Vista and Walden Media, Denver-based billionaire Philip Anschutz' production company that focuses on family fare. In one weekend alone, Narnia nearly matched the final gross of Walden's previous high, Holes from 2003. Walden was responsible for last year's debacle, Around the World in 80 Days, and the company's slate includes next year's children's book adaptations Charlotte's Web and How to Eat Fried Worms.

Since Lewis' Narnia is a Christian allegory, Buena Vista and Walden tried to tap into the Christian audience that made The Passion of the Christ a revelatory blockbuster last year. The same firm, Motive Marketing, that Mel Gibson and company hired to sell The Passion to churches was enlisted for Narnia, which conjures themes of faith and sacrifice that resonate with all religions. When asked, Buena Vista would not divulge the degree of the church campaign's success.

"I think [the Christian outreach] was a small portion of the marketing focus, but we focused on a lot of people and a lot of groups," said Disney's senior vice president general sales manager, Chris LeRoy. "We just marketed it to everybody." LeRoy posited that Narnia's family theme involving the bond between brothers and sisters was part of the attraction.

More so than The Passion, the perceived quality of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter pictures paved the way for Narnia. Prior to Rings and Potter, fantasy was a moribund genre, and Narnia's owes its existence as a motion picture to their success. All three franchises were phenomena in literature first, which made them must-see events—without such a basis, fantasy fails more often than not.

Hollywood will continue to follow the literary fantasy trend with Eragon due next December and His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass for December 2007 among other projects, while The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was conceived as the first adaptation of Lewis' seven-novel Narnia series.

After two strong weeks in limited release, Syriana unfurled nationwide to a solid $11.7 million at 1,752 venues. Mired by a murky trailer but tackling the topical subject matter of Middle East oil, writer-director Stephen Gaghan's ensemble political thriller posted a higher number than The Constant Gardener but was significantly behind Gaghan's Traffic. Distributor Warner Bros.' exit polling claimed that 70 percent of the audience was over 35 and 51 percent was male.

Warner Bros.' head of distribution Dan Fellman noted that Syriana is the only major R-rated picture in the market through the holidays. "It exceeded our expectations," Fellman said. "Most of the industry had the movie coming in wide at $7 to $9 million. [This opening] puts us at around $25 million before Christmas, which is good to have in the bank."


• 12/12/05 - 'Brokeback Mountain' Rides High in Limited Release

• 12/20/04 - 'Lemony' Licks Competition

• 12/22/03 - 'King' of the World: 'Rings' Reaps $250M in 5 Days

• 12/19/02 - Dear 'Lord!' 'Rings' Towers Over December

• Analysis: 'Passion of the Christ,' 'Fahrenheit 9/11' Tops in 2004

• Review: 'The Chronicles of Narnia'


• Fantasy Adventures

• All Time - December Openings

Weekend Box Office Results

NOTE: This report was originally published on Sunday, Dec. 11 and was updated on Monday, Dec. 12 with actual grosses.