The prodigal movie franchise has returned.
After the second "Narnia" film disappointed at the box office in 2008, Fox and Walden Media are hoping that a targeted play for churchgoing audiences will make “The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader" a hit.
“We’ve gone back to doing faith outreach in a manner that is consistent with the first film,” David Weil, CEO of the Anschutz Film Group division of Walden Media, told TheWrap. “In the second film there was more of an effort to broaden the base and appeal to teenage boys. By doing that we lost some of our core and heartland audience.”
The consequence of that more action-heavy campaign was an almost 50 percent drop in receipts. Costing $225 million to make, "Prince Caspian" made $420 million worldwide.
“It’s no small endeavor to relaunch a series. The ship has probably sailed on the adult audience for ‘Narnia,’ but it still has brand appeal,” says Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations.
In this case, Christian moviegoers may hold the key to getting the series back on track. Walden and its new partner Fox (stepping in for Disney, who left after the second movie faltered) are determined to win over the faith-based crowds they say helped make 2005’s “The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe” a $745 million worldwide smash.
That constituency is also credited with playing a pivotal role in the success of films such as "The Blind Side" and "The Passion of the Christ."
“What Fox has done is really take the Christian community seriously and make stong overtures to this group," says Philip Cooke, a media consultant focused on the Christian market, "Disney let that community wander away."
Fox and Walden have been reaching out to faith-based communities directly or through third-party consultants. With the help of Christian consulting group Grace Hill Media, the studio launched several websites with taped messages from religious leaders such as Franklin Graham and articles about the movie’s theological underpinnings.
Visitors to the sites can scroll down through a list of topics such as “Talking to Your Kids About Aslan.” There are even outlines for sermons that draw on the film’s story and characters’ spiritual growth to explore biblical themes. Walden had launched a similar site for “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” but jettisoned online faith outreach for “Prince Caspian.”
Additionally, the studio has held screenings for the Christian community. In February the filmmakers had a summit with faith-based leaders on the Fox lot, where they were shown footage and told that “Dawn Treader” would be more faithful to the novel.
“The feedback we’ve received is that this film seems to be a return to core values expressed in the first film,” Weil said.
With that in mind, there is a renewed emphasis on Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), the Christ-like lion at the heart of the series. In both print and television advertisements, the leonine visage and Neeson’s resonant brogue are front and center.
“I’m sure that’s a strategic move. From a mythological level, [Aslan] carries a great deal of symbolism,” Cooke said.
Of course, there are hazards in making an explicit pitch for a religious crowd. In particular, filmmakers must thread the needle carefully lest they turn off secular moviegoers.
“It’s a fine line, because we want the film to be embraced by the Christian community, but we don’t want it to be overly religious and alienate those who want to experience it as an adventure story,” Weil said.
Analysts think that tightrope walk has worked so far for the film.
"There's a buzz out there that there wasn't with 'Prince Caspian.' When a film is done well and the word gets out about it, the faith community will show up," Bob Waliszewski, a media consultant with the Christian group Focus on the Family, told TheWrap.
Beyond the marketing, there have been other tweaks as well. Most importantly, the latest installment is a more economical epic. The studio kept the budget at $150 million, a $75 million cut from the last film’s price tag. That’s important because analysts predict a that “Dawn Treader” will be a “Prince Caspian” style double rather than a “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” home run. Currently, the film is expected to make roughly $35 to $40 million next weekend, on pace for a $140 million domestic haul.
The studio also deliberately repositioned “Dawn Treader” as a holiday release, scheduling the debut for roughly the same weekend that the first film dominated some five years ago. In contrast, “Prince Caspian” debuted in a summer season packed with tentpole films.
There are seven books in Lewis’ “Chronicles,” but if Walden and Fox fail to reignite the franchise, don’t look for a part four.
“They don’t want this to be the last film, but if a more focused advertising campaign doesn’t work, it will be,” Bock said.