The Secret History of Why Disney Dumped Narnia

Patrick Goldstein on his L.A. Times ‘Big Picture’ weblog has written what really caused the fallout between Disney and Walden and the break-up of their partnership on the Chronicles of Narnia films. I thought there were three interesting points to Mr. Goldstein’s piece:

(1) He says, ultimately, the break up was the fault of the head of Walden Media who played hardball for the distribution rights to Caspian after the success of the first Narnia movie. But then he goes on to explain that Caspian was a bust relative to Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe (LWW) because Disney overspent on production, marketed the movie to the wrong audience, a released it in a crowd of summer blockbusters rather than during the holidays. Is this the fault of Walden Media’s playing hardball or is the blame resting there because of the faith orientation of that group’s leader?

(2) He quotes a Disney rep who thought the move to summer was do-able because the Harry Potter movies had been successes in both holiday and summer time slots — and that movie release dates were not that important to a movie’s success (i.e., great movies get audiences whenever they released). Those of you whose memories of the movie releases are better than mine need to help me here; how many of the Potter films have been released in the summer? Phoenix was, of course, which fostered the already tsunami-sized Pottermania madness in the summer of 2007. I hope Janet will comment on both the assertion that Caspian did poorly because of some other reason than release date and that the Potter movies have established family movies can be successful in the summer and holiday movie seasons.

(3) Voyage of the Dawn Treader is coming! Ms. Rowling once said this was her favorite Narnia book (back in the day when she allowed that she read them and loved the books). After The Silver Chair, I would agree. Lewis presents a catalogue of fantasy genres in one brilliant exposition. I’m not a big film goer but I’m looking forward to this one — even if they only spend $140 million making it (ho!).

Your comments and corrections, please.

Comments

  1. Two Harry Potter films have been released in the summer so far: Azkaban, which now ranks as the lowest-grossing film of the series (though it still made over $200 million in North America and nearly $800 million worldwide); and Phoenix, which now ranks as the second-highest-grossing film of the series (after the first film) — though as you note, Phoenix had the advantage of coming out during the summer of “madness”, when the seventh and final book was published. The next film, Half-Blood Prince, will also be coming out in the summer (though it was originally scheduled for last Thanksgiving).

  2. The ways of movie executives and production companies are mysterious & beyond the ken of normal mortals. Who can tell what went wrong between Walden & Disney?

    Release dates: HPSS, COS, & GOF all in early November. POA in early June. OOTP in mid July. HBP in summer, most likely early July.

    VODT is one of my favorite Narnia stories along with Horse & His Boy, Prince Caspian, & of course LWW. The Silver Chair should’ve been a favorite of mine but it never was for some reason although it is a great book & trashes naturalism.

  3. Reading through the stories more thoroughly, I think that this split between Disney & Walden is mainly corporate movie politics. Because as one of the articles which was linked to by Goldstein said, VODT, duh! It’s a sea going rollicking quest with dragons & missing knights & sea serpents & dark islands & mysteries plus one Eustace Clarence Scrubb! What movie studio would think that wouldn’t sell! So, Disney must’ve been pretty ticked at Walden to give up on that action.

    It might be nice if Warner Brothers went in on the deal. As long as they didn’t get Michael Gambon to play any part in the films, I think they’d do a good job, especially with being a bit more faithful to the story of the books.

  4. RenaBlack says:

    This is very exciting and interesting, John, although I do hope that if and when DT gets released, it’s a bit truer to Lewis’ vision than those few odd scenes in PC. Good film highlights something different about books–in fact, before I read “Looking For God,” it was the Potter films that sparked my first inklings (no pun intended) about Harry’s Christian heritage.

    The comments on Goldstein’s piece include a mention of a BBC program due “around Easter 2009” called “The Narnia Code,” which the commenter says is based on Michael Ward’s book “Narnia Land.” Is that a misquote or British title to “Planet Narnia,” or is the BBC actually producing a Planet Narnia program?

  5. Thanks for the link and the information, John. I was sorry when they said that Dawntreader wouldn’t happen, as it’s one of my favorites. However, after reading the article that you linked, I can’t say that I blame Disney for dissolving the partnership. Personally, I wasn’t that impressed with Caspian. Parts were good, but whoever wrote the script missed the character of Caspian. And writer and director turned Peter into a suspicious, whiny character that he just wasn’t in the book.

    As for the marketing, I think what they failed to realize is that Caspian isn’t the favorite Narnia book for many people. I think it’s my least favorite. And then instead of focusing on the relationship between all the kids and Aslan and focused on the battle only.

    You asked about the release dates for Harry Potter, so I looked it up as I couldn’t quite remember. So here it is (all info relates to US release dates and budget and gross:

    Sorcerer’s Stone: (fall)
    Nov. 16, 2001

    Gross: $317,557,891
    Budget: $125,000,000
    (Profit, based on just those two numbers= $192,557,891)

    Chamber of Secrets: (fall)
    Nov. 15, 2002

    Gross: $261,970,615
    Budget: $100,000,000
    (Profit = $161,970,615)

    Prisoner of Azkaban: (early summer)
    June 4, 2004

    Gross: $249,358,727
    Budget: $130,000,000
    (Profit = $119,358,727)

    Goblet of Fire: (fall)
    Nov. 18, 2005

    Gross: $289,994,397
    Budget: $150,000,000
    (Profit = $139,994,397)

    Order of the Phoenix: (middle of summer)
    July 11, 2007

    Gross: $292,000,866
    Budget: $150,000,000
    (Profit = $142,000,866)

    Half-Blood Prince: (middle of summer)
    July 17, 2009

    No budget listed as yet

    So, three in the fall and two in the summer, but the profit doesn’t seem to matter with HP. The first two movies made the most (fall release) and the third made the least (early summer). But then it doesn’t stay with that pattern because the fourth, released in the fall, didn’t do as well as the fifth movie which was in the middle of the summer. Granted, the fifth movie was just before the last book so it was a Harry Potter week and a half.

    But maybe success of a movie has more to do with the actual movie. The gross that is reported isn’t for opening weekend, it’s for the theater run. That means that there are a lot of people who saw the movies more than once included in that total and some saw it because they heard from friends that it was good. So at some point, people go to the theater again because they liked the movie, or they didn’t go again because they didn’t like it. Or they didn’t go at first until they talked to someone who said it was worth seeing in the theater. I know I have done that. And then there are some movies that I’ve wanted to see but after talking to a friend I’ve decided to just wait for the DVD.

    Pat

  6. After the first two Potter films, which were separated by a year, the pattern began of separating them by a year and a half – nominally. The result of this was something that I think was not ideal for the success of the films – though they did big numbers in any case.

    What do I mean? Well, JG has written how the books have alternated in their theme, between what one might call introverted and extroverted. I tend to think that the latter type of films just “fit” better as summer films, and the former perhaps as winter films. Unfortunately, the previous staggering had the movies opposite that sequence. The delay of HBP may work to the film’s advantage, Mugglenet whining notwithstanding.

    I think this is most easily seen with books 3 and 4. “Azkaban” was maybe the most introspective book of the series – it wasn’t real big on action. As such, it wasn’t an ideal summer film. And, as Pat points out, it was the least successful at the box office.

    Conversely, “Goblet” had lots of action – it was ideal for the summer, but it came out in November. Still, it was, at the time, the second highest grossing film of the series.

    It’s hard to say how “OotP” fits into this pattern – it was another introspective book, but the film itself was much less so. When adjusting for inflation (courtesy of boxofficemojo.com), it was the second-lowest grossing film of the five.

    On the other hand, if “HBP” is anything like the book, it will be an ideal summer film – teen romance and all. I suspect it will gross well over $300 mill, and probably rank second in the series.

    All bets are off for the final “Deathly Hallows” pair – the first half comes out in late ’10 – ideal, if we’re concluding with the Silver Doe. And then the finale, with a no doubt spectacular Battle of Hogwarts and Gringotts break in, will be an early summer release the next year. (Let’s hope that the money going into the battle sequences doesn’t mean that “The Forest Again” and the Shell Cottage scenes aren’t given short shrift.)

    Back on topic – I’m definitely pleased to learn that “Dawn Treader” is likely to be an audience pleaser. I will admit to only having read the Narnia books as the movies have come out (yes, I’ve only read the first two), and I was a bit underwhelmed by both versions of “Prince Caspian”. After its less than boffo box office compared to its predecessor, I wasn’t sure the film series would continue.

    Nicholas

  7. Calculating a movie’s profit is never as simple as subtracting the production budget from the gross. First you have to take into account the cost of promoting a film, which can often run to well over $100 million — especially on major films such as these. Then you have to take into account the fact that theatres keep anywhere from 20% to 50% of the gross. Those two factors alone can reduce significantly the amount of money that goes back to the studio. And then the studio has to divide the remaining money among the production companies and anyone else who may have had it stipulated in their contracts that they get a percentage of the gross.

    Of course, movies like Harry Potter tend to make a lot more money overseas than they do in the United States and Canada, so the “profit”, assuming there is any, doesn’t depend on the North American grosses alone. The problem with Prince Caspian is that it simply didn’t make enough money to offset all those other costs, even when foreign grosses were taken into account.

    As for Disney’s reasons for dumping the Narnia franchise: Jim Hill noted a few months ago that Disney held a major event in September, promoting its upcoming films (Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Toy Story 3, Tron 2, etc.), and Dawn Treader was being left conspicuously off the list even then. The reason for this, according to Hill, has to do partly with the fact that the Narnia franchise is seen within the Disney studio as a relic of the Michael Eisner era, when he was desperate to find a fantasy franchise that could compete with those of the other studios. But since then, Eisner has left the studio, and Disney has launched the highly lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean series — which is based on one of their theme-park rides, and is thus completely owned by the studio — and Disney also now owns Pixar outright, so the prospect of splitting the costs on a left-over franchise owned by an outside company and subject to constant meddling from the C.S. Lewis Estate … well, that didn’t seem so appealing any more.

    The Jim Hill article that I’m referring to is “Monday Mouse Watch : Waiting for the Dawn.”

  8. First, the good news:

    Fox has just picked up VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER. You’ll see it in the news tomorrow. Fox’s relationship with Walden has been quite good, so I would expect this means a smooth journey to the release of the movie.

    Okay, a few thoughts on the above…

    John:
    <>

    I assume you’re referring to Philip Anschutz? But he’s not the head of Walden Media. He owns it, finances it (partially), but he’s not really involved in decisions like this. His faith orientation has nothing to do with the decisions made (though it’s entirely possible that individuals at Disney weren’t comfortable with the “faith orientation” of the Narnia material).

    <>

    Caspian did poorly because it was released against some monster competition, namely IRON MAN and INDIANA JONES 4. Anyone in town could tell it wasn’t going to match LWW’s grosses the second they saw the release date.

    It also did poorly because it’s just not as compelling a story as LWW (or as Dawn Treader, for that matter). The lead character isn’t one of our English kids, who are almost shoved to the side for much of the story, and Aslan plays a significantly less significant role than he did in LWW. And for the fans of the book, the Disney version made too many changes.

    Add it all up: To get the kind of grosses LWW enjoyed, you need people to go to the movie multiple times. But if you haven’t seen IRON MAN yet, maybe you’ll go see that on PRINCE CASPIAN’s opening weekend instead (after all, you’ve been hearing so much about it). And if you wait a week or so, you might want to see INDIANA JONES. And when you do manage to catch PRINCE CASPIAN on the big screen, well, it’s sort of dark, and Aslan is barely there, and it’s not quite the way you remember the book, and sure, it’d be nice to see it a second time but, hey, THE DARK KNIGHT is coming out soon and maybe you’ll just wait for the DVD….

    And it wasn’t the Potter movies that established that a family movie could fare well during the summer. It’s the reverse: Warner Bros. felt confident moving HP from Thanksgiving to the summer *because* summer is one of the two proven times for family movies (along with the tiny window afforded by Christmas). (Just look at the trailers you’ll start to see soon for summer movies — almost all of them will be family movies of one sort of another, with PG or PG-13 ratings.)

    Pat:

    Peter is absolutely right that you can’t take the box office gross of a movie and subtract the negative cost (the cost of making the movie) and assume the rest is profit. Let’s take ORDER OF THE PHOENIX: $292 million gross (I assume that is domestic box office). But the exhibitors (i.e., the theatre owners) will have taken appx half of that (it’s a sliding percentage, based on how long it stays in the theatres, but in general you can assume half). So the actual return to Warner Bros. is $146 million. And Peter’s right, Warners could easily have spent $100 mil on “P&A” (prints and advertising). So now we’re down to a return of $46 mil. And if the movie truly cost $150 mil (I believe that’s the official figure, but unofficially the movie probably cost closer to $200 mil), then Warners is already at least $104 million in the hole.

    Where will they make it up? Foreign box office, DVD sales, TV sales… Of course they’ll end up making money on it — that’s their job. But that money will not show up in the profit columns of any P&L statements — probably ever. Welcome to the world of studio accounting.

    In any event, it is good news that Fox is in the mix for DAWN TREADER. (Probably bad news for me, because Fox passed on a movie we wrote just a few weeks ago, a movie Fox planned to budget at $200 mil — and it was probably in part *because* they knew they’d have to cough up $200 mil or so for Narnia… And one just can’t make too many movies at that level and stay afloat… sigh….)

    But good news for all of us wanting to actually see the movie get made!

    –Janet, reporting from Hollywood (!)

  9. Fox and Walden certainly have a “close” relationship, but I’m not so sure it’s been a “good” relationship — that is, I’m not so sure that Fox or Walden have benefited from their relationship.

    According to an article that appeared in Variety in October 2007 (“Walden prepares for kid-film battle”), the Fox-Walden partnership was created after Disney declined to create a long-term partnership with Walden — so there is a precedent, here, for Walden getting rejected by Disney and then “settling” for Fox. And what has happened since then? The Fox-Walden films have done very modest business at best — the most successful of them, Nim’s Island, grossed only $48 million in North America — and the Fox-Walden division was almost completely shuttered last year after the failure of City of Ember. (Other Fox-Walden films that didn’t do very well include The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.)

    On top of this, Fox has a very bad reputation for micromanaging its films and driving top talent away — a number of directors have vowed never to work with Fox again — and they have had very, very few bona fide hits over the past year and a half. (Their biggest hit of 2008 was Horton Hears a Who!, which grossed $297 million worldwide; and their top-grossing live-action film last year was The Day the Earth Stood Still, which has currently earned only $227 million worldwide. That’s barely more than half of what Prince Caspian made — and Prince Caspian was considered a box-office disappointment.)

    So it remains to be seen whether Fox can make the film — especially given how much control the C.S. Lewis Estate is used to having over this franchise — and whether they can sell the film to a public that has been rather elusively beyond their grasp in recent months.

  10. I’m interested to see what reasons they come up with to show why Eustace was such a bad kid. In the book it’s clearly because of his educational & parental systems. His parents are progressive materialistic liberals & his schools are dull places where only the wrong sorts of books are read. So, I’m sure he’ll be shown to be so bad because he was turned off of religion by stuffy institutional churches & he just needs to get back to his feelings of spirituality. Or something equally implausible.

    Kind of like how they did in LWW when Edmund is shown to be so bad because he’s missing his daddy instead of the fact that his schooling was teaching him to be a little god & little gods end up turning out to be big monsters a lot of the time.

    C’mon, Hollywood, the Narnia books are not that hard to nail down on their themes & on their characterizations. But sometimes I think they like to change things about books just for the sake of change or for enhancing the message of the books (which they usually get wrong) or correcting what they see as failings in the books (which they usually get wrong too). But then maybe I’m a cynic. 🙂

  11. revgeorge, I’m a cynic right along with you on books into movies. Even though I understand that it wouldn’t work to make a film without changing the book at all, I do wish they could manage to display their creative talents without changing the crucial parts of a book, like the main plot points and especially what makes the characters who they are.

    And just a note about my post with the numbers. I said that it was based on just two things because those were the only numbers listed on imdb. I fully realize that there is a lot more involved in figuring out the financial success or failure of a movie. When I was looking for the release dates, which John had asked about, I stumbled on the gross and the budget amounts and thought it was interesting to include them.

    Pat

  12. Pat, right with you. I don’t mind things necessarily being changed in a movie form of a book. Some adaptation has to be made just to get it translated to the screen. What always miffs me is when they take out stuff that should’ve been left in or put in stuff that didn’t need to be there, especially when it’s their own fancy creation & which does nothing to explain the meaning behind the book & which, more often than not, obscures or changes the meaning. I also dislike it very much when they get character motivation wrong or turn characters into somebody they never were in the books. See Peter Jackson’s trilogy for what I mean there.

    But I’m probably ranging far afield from what John’s original post was about. 🙂

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