Analysts predicted that the Golden Compass needed to make between $30 and 50 million this weekend in order to be considered a feasible success. It fell short over the Friday to Sunday weekend, taking in only around $25 million domestically (counting overseas ticket sales, though, it has made around $80 million). The real question is, did the objections and protests by Christian advocacy groups work?
The answer depends upon whether you were one of those protesting the film. For The Catholic League, the protests were a rousing success, keeping a big-budget blockbuster from even lifting off the ground. For many film critics and industry analysts, however, it was the largely poor reviews which kept many families away.
I would submit, however, that, for Christians, the real victory happened when the script was being written. When Chris Weitz was first commissioned to write the script, he declared that the anti-religious themes of the books would have to be toned down. Why would this be, except that he knew the film could never survive in Western cinema while speaking clearly and pungently against the Christian religion. Indeed, New Line Cinema could not afford to hang their hat on such an expensive project only to have it labeled as anti-Christian and religiously offensive in a nation where so many moviegoers consider themselves (in one form or another) to be Christians.
I would argue that many parents hold their children to much higher ideals than they hold themselves to. For example, parents will go and see an anti-religious film if it looks entertaining, but most wouldn't dare introduce such offensive ideas into their children's sensitive minds. The audience for this film is parents and their children, and most parents (speaking generally) want their children to be religious in some sense. In essence, the film could not remain true to the book and financially survive.
However, upon word that the movie would be watered down, Weitz received a flood of negative comments from those who wanted to see the atheistic elements of the books clearly presented in the film(s). Consider this article where anti-religious groups accuse Weitz of "white-washing" the books. Some anti-censorship groups were outraged, as well. Consider this quote from the Atlantic Monthly: "With $180 million at stake, the studio opted to kidnap the book’s body and leave behind its soul."
Simply put, the mere presence and strength of Christian moviegoers was enough for New Line cinema to change the essence of The Golden Compass so that families would attend. This is why I say that the victory for Christian advocates happened long before filming even began. Again, it is true that anti-Christian films are made all the time, but few of them are marketed to children.
Now, at this point, I am merely speculating, but the protests of The Catholic League and Focus on the Family would not have been enough to keep me away from the film, but I have few qualms about watching most films. I only went to see the film, initially, because I was asked by Reformation21.org to do a review of it. What was keeping me (and several friends) away was the largely negative reviews of the film. If even a fraction of the moviegoers out there are of the same mind as me, then I can pretty much guarantee you that the movie killed itself, without the help of protesters. Of course, victory laps by the Christian advocacy groups are to be expected, but they should not get cocky. If this film were being unanimously declared movie of the year from critics everywhere you can bet that I wouldn't even be writing this article (or at least the title would have to be changed). I'd be sipping my heavily-creamed coffee and talking about how I can't wait for the next film in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife. Right now, I'm not so sure we'll ever see it.