Actor Sam Elliott, who played the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby in the 2007 movie “The Golden Compass,” has blamed the Catholic Church for scaring Hollywood away from creating a sequel.
Elliott claimed that the Church “lambasted” the company that produced “The Golden Compass,” New Line Cinema, and “scared New Line off.”
Elliott was referring to the boycott organized by Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. The London Evening Standard quoted Donahue's reason for opposing the movie.
“The reason I protested was the deceitful attempt to introduce Christian children to the wonders of atheism in a backdoor fashion at Christmas time,” said Donahue. “Everyone agrees the film version was not anti-Catholic, but that hardly resolves the issue. The fact is that each volume in the trilogy becomes increasingly anti-Catholic.”
As the British columnist Peter Hitchens  put it, Pullman's trilogy “depicts priests as evil and murderous, drunk and probably perverted, and the Church as 'a conspiracy against happiness and kindness.'”
But can the Church truly be blamed (or cheered, depending on your point of view) for the failure of “The Golden Compass” in the box office?
Well, Donahue was more than willing to take the credit.
“I am delighted the boycott worked,” Donahue told the Evening Standard. “Just as the producers have a right to make the movie, I have a right to protest.”
And the box office numbers appear to agree with him. According to Boxofficemojo.com , the movie fell far short of its expected $30-40 million opening day U.S. revenues, earning only $25.8 million. In fact, the U.S. only accounted for 18.8 percent of the movie's total profit – a startlingly low number since U.S. audiences usually account for at least 30 percent of big-money movies.
On the other hand, the film, not the Church, might have created its own demise. As the Guardian's film blog  gamely pointed out yesterday, the Church hasn't had that much sway in preventing movie sequels in the past.
“The Catholic church hates a lot of things,” wrote blogger Stuart Heritage. “The Vatican called the Twilight sequel New Moon "a moral vacuum with a deviant message,"  and that's only the second in a series. Cardinal Francis Arinze started huffing about legal action when The Da Vinci Code was released, and that got a sequel in which loads of Catholics run around on fire. The Pope said that Harry Potter would "corrupt the Christian faith"  and that got seven sequels … So maybe, just maybe, 'The Golden Compass' wasn't given any sequels because it didn't deserve any.”
Of course there could be another reason entirely why the film flopped.
It's quite possible that the majority of Americans value their religious beliefs and don't want to watch a movie that displays contempt for them. A survey published by the Pew Research Center  last year reported that 92 percent of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit. And box office numbers prove that Americans like movies that support rather than undermine that belief.
Two years before the “The Golden Compass” but on the same opening weekend, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” – a movie based on C.S. Lewis' religious allegory of God and redemption – hit theaters nationwide. On its first day, the movie grossed $65.5 million. It went on to earn a total of $745 million nationwide with nearly 40 percent of those profits coming from the U.S.
The trend holds if you compare “The Golden Compass” to a movie released within the same year. In 2007, a much less hyped movie called “Juno” opened two days before “The Golden Compass.” “Juno” follows the nine-month journey of a pregnant high school girl who decides that instead of selfishly aborting her child, she's going to give it to a couple that has desperately tried to adopt for years.
With limited advertising to promote the movie before its release, “Juno” initially grossed only $10.6 million nationwide. By the time the movie left theaters, however, it had earned $231.4 million worldwide – 62 percent of which came from the U.S. With a production budget one-twentieth that of “The Golden Compass,” that's quite a hefty return.