18 December 2006

The Current State of Fantasy Films (or Has Eragon Come and Gon?)

Until recent years, the fantasy genre has really struggled at the box office. In the 1980's movies like Krull, Dragonslayer, The Princess Bride, and Legend all failed to break the $20 million mark. Only 1988's Willow managed to bust through the $50 million glass ceiling. The 90's had less attempts and just as little success with fantasy creating such films as Dragonheart. Even the early entries in the new millennium struggled. Reign of Fire, and Dungeons and Dragons both attempted to cash in with CG dragons with little effect. Then came Lord of the Rings and everything changed. To be fair, a little series known as Harry Potter and its success also gave fantasyphiles hope for the future. Especially after Return of the King virtually swept the Oscars, it seemed fantasy had finally become mainstream.

2005's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe was the first copycat to cash in on the established winter holiday success found by Rings and Potter, though the Narnia book series was well known by broad audiences so its success was not a real surprise. So, along came Eragon, 2006's entry in the new tradition of successful holiday fantasy flicks... only Eragon did not get the huge reception of the previous years hits. This opening weekend, Eragon mustered up about $24 million, and the $90 budgeted film will need strong business over the Christmas break to reclaim its investment.

So, what does this mean for the genre? First off, why didn't Eragon do better? Well, The Eragon novel doesn't have nearly the fanbase of Lord of the Rings, Potter, or Narnia. Also, a mere 90 some minute runtime makes it difficult to give a film a real epic film which fantasy requires. In addition, Eragon lacks the directorial talents of a Peter Jackson. This was Stefen Fangmeier's first turn in the director's chair, and lead actor Edward Speelers' first role. The 14% freshness rating on RottenTomatoes.com isn't exactly a ringing endorsement either, much of the poor rating being attributed to Eragon's beat for beat similarities to Star Wars Episode IV (better to copy Episode 4 than The Phantom Menace... right? ). I think it is safe to assume that a better film, or at least better marketed film would have performed better. So, while Eragon's performance (or lack thereof) probably doesn't help the genre, it may not really be a sign of things to come. After all, it was not a bomb, and there are plenty of other fantasy films under production. At least a couple of them have to be better than Eragon, and they will be the real test of the current state of the fantasy film genre.

2007 has 3 big entries to offer up in the fantasty genre. Up first is July 13th's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. If there is any such thing as a sure fire hit, this is it. Though not my favorite in the series (3 and 6 are tied for my favs) this Potter should be a another good adaptation. Also, it features a confrontation between the boy wizard and Voldy. I just can't see this film doing anything but succeeding. Unfortunately, being part of the already established successful fantasy films list, Potters success does little to help the genre as a whole.

Later in July comes the highly anticipated (at least by me) Stardust. Its got romance crossed with adventure in a fantastic world. The closest film to this I can think of is The Princess Bride. Though Stardust may not bring in $200 million, I believe it can be a hit. The now acclaimed Princess Bride made only $31 million back in 1987, so a big take for Stardust may reveal that fantasy still has a broad appeal.

What about next winter? His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass has claimed the Christmas season fantasy slot. With armored polar bears, magical creatures, and Nicole Kidman this one should be a hit. The Golden Compass is based on a fairly popular book (also known as The Northern Lights) in a trilogy by Philip Pullman giving it a built in audience. With a budget of $150 million, the suits are banking on this one being a hit, and a flop here could sadly spell trouble for our new winter fantasy film tradition.

Further down the road, we can count on many more quality fantasy films. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (winter 2008) as well as Harry Potter 7 are all but sure things. Also, the Narnia sequel Prince Caspian in currently in development for Summer 2008. If it is also a hit, then expect Narnia films of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair to follow shortly thereafter. If The Golden Compass does well, there are 2 follow ups that could be made (The Subtle Knife & The Amber Spyglass). While it seems that a follow up to Eragon based on the book sequel Eldest may be a stretch, MGM has made an announcement that will make us forget about this series. MGM announced that there is an upcoming Hobbit movie or two. These Lord of the Rings prequels should be huge, especially if they get Peter Jackson back along with Ian McKellen as Galdalf the Grey. Lastly, Peter Jackson has optioned the Temeraire saga for production. If you are unfamiliar with this series (as I was) it is a historical fantasy saga that reimagines the Napoleonic Wars only with a dragon air force.

With many projects underway, its premature to say the fantasy is dead, or even dying. Consider Eragon the inevitable bump in the road that occurs when studios get greedy and forget that there is more to box office success than a simple formula of "1 part based on a book + 2 parts winter release date = $$$." The fantasy genre is alive, and we can count on many more films of the genre, good and bad, to grace the big screen for at least the next few years.


j said...

I thought Peter Jackson was no longer in on the Hobbit project? Has that changed?

Chip Chief said...

well j, i had hoped to gloss over that issue, but once again, your "need to know" has made me do more work.

PJ and New Line Cinema have a pending legal dispute about how much the Lord of the Rings movies really made. PJ is insisting on an audit, and New Line is refusing. Because of this dispute, New Line (who holds the rights to make the movie as opposed to MGM who has the rights to distribute the movie) and PJ are at an impass.

BUT, supposedly next year (either 2007 or 2008) the rights to make the movie revert back to another company with which PJ has no beef. It is pretty likely that PJ was being hard nosed about the New Line attempts to resolve the issue in order to get an even better deal when time runs out.

Dragulf said...

I heard the Tolkien heir said Jackson was the man and things would be worked out somehow.

Nice layout/color scheme.

Chip Chief said...

thanks dragulf!

Dragulf said...

Anyone that mentions Krull on their blog deserves praise Chip. That movie made me the sci-fi fan I am today. Very prolific this month m8.

Chip Chief said...

dragulf, i shall have a special treat for you on thursday!