Studios Battle to Save Narnia (From Grip of Sequel Fatigue)

With the opening this Friday of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” comes a study in one of the most difficult challenges a studio can face: fixing a broken movie.

There are few matters studio executives sweat more than maintaining their franchises. In the high-risk film business, sequels and spinoffs are the equivalent of insurance policies, but keeping these properties afloat requires expert handling of casting, tone and narrative. Once core fans turn away from a series, it is next to impossible to win them back.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Source: 20th Century Fox
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Twentieth Century Fox and Walden Media are trying to pull off just that feat with “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” the third installment in the “Chronicles of Narnia” series based on the Christianity-themed novels of C. S. Lewis. Conservative moviegoers — what Hollywood calls the “faith” audience — powered “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” to $745 million in global ticket sales.

But “Prince Caspian,” engineered with intense battle sequences to appeal to teenage boys, turned off the religious crowd and sold about $420 million at the global box office, a sharply disappointing result for a film that cost about $350 million to make and market. “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” about three children who must resist temptation to free a fantasy world from evil, returns to overt religious imagery.

At stake is the future of this once-promising movie property, and of course the lucre and luster it can deliver to the two companies most invested in it. If “Voyage of the Dawn Treader” does not succeed, it is unlikely that the remaining four books in the series will be produced.

After a summer filled with disappointments like “The A-Team,” “Knight and Day” and “Marmaduke,” Fox, owned by the News Corporation, is under pressure to deliver a big hit. Walden, which has struggled with duds like “Ramona and Beezus,” has even more riding on the movie because it makes only about four films a year and did not turn a profit on its last major release, “Prince Caspian.”

“We are holding our breath to see how it goes next weekend,” said David Weil, who oversees Walden as chief executive of the Anschutz Film Group, owned by the investor Philip Anschutz.

An unusual game of Hollywood one-upmanship is also at play. Walt Disney Studios teamed with Walden Media, which owns the movie rights to the Lewis novels, to make the first two films but, deciding the franchise was beyond repair, walked away after “Prince Caspian.” Fox pounced, betting it could succeed where Disney failed.

“Voyage of the Dawn Treader” is a PG-rated family adventure directed by Michael Apted, whose credits include the James Bond film “The World Is Not Enough” to “Gorillas in the Mist.” After falling into a mystical world, a young brother and sister and their cousin travel aboard the Dawn Treader, a royal ship, in search of the source of an evil green mist. Along the way they encounter dwarves, mermaids and a truly sinister sea serpent. It’s a world filled with talking animals like Aslan, a lion who acts as a Christ figure, and Reepicheep, a swashbuckling mouse.

To repair the franchise, Fox first worked to reduce the budget — operating under the assumption that the next movie would perform no better than “Prince Caspian,” which would have been a solid success if it had not cost so much to make and market. While “Prince Caspian” was shot in four countries over 140 days, “Voyage of the Dawn Treader” would be filmed in Australia, where the studio could reap generous tax breaks, in just 90 days.

Fox also cut the visual effects budget nearly in half, partly by reusing digital designs for the computer-generated animal characters. “It’s like any other movie — you’ve got to do it for a price that makes sense,” said Tom Rothman, co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment.

(Mr. Rothman knows a thing or two about gambling with big budgets: Hollywood thought he was foolish when Fox and two partners spent more than $400 million to make and market “Avatar,” only to watch it sell $2.8 billion at the global box office.)

"Fingers crossed."

The storyline for “Voyage of the Dawn Treader” was equally important. The Lewis novels represent a formidable storytelling challenge on screen because major characters do not carry over from one to the next. To make some of the most popular characters from “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” pop up in “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” three screenwriters grafted on bits and pieces of narrative from other novels in the series.

Battle sequences were not necessarily played down — there is sword fighting aplenty — but the companies and screenwriters did elevate the mystical and comical elements of the story. “We decided we had to get back to the magic and the wonder and the awe of Narnia,” said Mark Johnson, a producer of all three films.

Marketing and distribution came next. Disney released “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” at Christmas, an easy decision because much of the action takes place in a frozen Narnia. When the film became a giant hit, Disney overreached, figuring it could make even more money by moving “Prince Caspian” to summer — in a death-defying slot between “Iron Man” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

Disney, figuring it had the family audience in the bag, focused on teenage boys with “Prince Caspian,” using taglines like “You may find Narnia a more savage place than you remember.”

In Mr. Apted’s assessment, “They got a little careless by taking the faith group for granted — and by neglecting it paid the price.” Mr. Apted paid attention. “We realized we can’t make the same mistake,” he said. “We’ve got to sell the film to everybody.”

Besides screening “Voyage of the Dawn Treader” for family and religious groups, Fox moved the series back to December. “We came to the realization that this is a Christmas franchise,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s a time of the year that is full of wonder and when families go see movies together.”

If “Voyage of the Dawn Treader” is deemed a success — still a big if, since it must compete in a very crowded movie marketplace — Fox and Walden have two directions to go. “The Silver Chair” is the obvious choice since it is the fourth book in the series, and one major character carries over.

But Mr. Weil said another option was “The Magician’s Nephew,” a prequel to “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and more of a comic romp.

“More important than what film is next is simply that the franchise continues,” Mr. Weil said. “Fingers crossed.”