The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was the number one film at the box office this weekend. You would think that this is great news for Narnia fans. Unfortunately, it opened with an anemic $24 million, less than half of what Prince Caspian took in on its opening weekend in 2008, despite the fact that Dawn Treader had the benefit of higher 3D ticket prices. When Fox took over for Disney as Walden Media's partner for the Narnia series, they hoped that they could resuscitate the Narnia franchise by returning to the formula that seemed to work for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: a holiday release date, a family-friendly marketing campaign to erase the dark and battle-heavy memory of Prince Caspian, and aggressive outreach to church audiences (not to mention a budget significantly reduced from the pricey Prince Caspian). Sadly, the box office trajectory for these films is in a steady downward direction, and Disney's decision to get out of the Narnia business is looking pretty smart.
In 2005, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe shocked everyone when it grossed $291 million, outperforming big holiday competitors like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Peter Jackson's King Kong. Disney thought it had itself a new fantasy-lit franchise on par with Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, Caspian underperformed for a number of reasons and grossed only $141 million. Disney decided the Narnia was less of a franchise and more of a one hit wonder. But Walden persuaded Fox to pick up the franchise and try again. So if Fox "fixed" the perceived problems with the franchise, what happened? Well, the soft opening of Dawn Treader signals that the ongoing appeal of Narnia is simply limited. The series is really only widely known for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And each of the subsequent books in the series stand alone as a self-contained stories. This leaves only the die-hard Narnia fans to keep coming back.
There is a little bit of silver (chair) lining to this cloud: the film had a strong $80 million opening in foreign territories. If it can continue to draw audiences during the holidays and does solid business overseas, Fox could still see enough of a return on its investment that goes forward with more films. Unfortunately, Dawn Treader looks like it is following the path of other failed fantasy-lit films such as The Golden Compass and Eragon. In the end, it will be up to Walden Media to decide what to do with the franchise if Fox walks away. Instead of sharing costs with a big studio, Walden could choose to bankroll the next film (likely The Silver Chair) all on its own without a big studio splitting the cost. Walden could then shop it to the major studios purely for a distribution deal. This would be similar to the deal that Marvel made with Paramount before Marvel was acquired by Disney. Under that old deal, Marvel financed Iron Man and Iron Man 2 all on its own, but paid Paramount a fee for marketing and distribution. It's a long shot, but it may be the best hope for those longing to hear Aslan roar on the big screen again.