Can fantasy epics survive the Credit Crunch Chronicles?

Narnia, His Dark Materials – not even Harry Potter is safe from Tinseltown's recession

America's half-empty shopping malls aren't the only place where big business is sucking its teeth and proclaiming "everything must go". The worsening credit crunch is also threatening the future of some of Hollywood's best-known film franchises.

Disney took advantage of the seasonal news lull last week to quietly slip out news that it has decided to withdraw from producing The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the next in the Chronicles of Narnia series of films based on the children's books by C S Lewis.

Blaming "budgetary considerations" for its decision, the studio said it would not renew an option to co-finance the $200m (£137m) movie because the worsening economic climate has forced it to become more selective about the number of films it produces.

It was the second major fantasy franchise to be unceremoniously cancelled in recent months. Earlier this year, Warner Bros decided not to make a follow-up to The Golden Compass, the first instalment of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. At the time, the studio suggested that the decision to abandon the sequel, The Subtle Knife, had been made because the original had upset Christian groups.

However, the real reason was likely to have been more prosaic: The Golden Compass received lukewarm reviews and managed to generate just $70m at the US box office. Although the film staved off disaster by taking $300m internationally, investors were sceptical about a follow-up.

The wider film industry is expecting to tighten its belt in 2009 with even blue-chip film-makers unable to raise funds. Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks company is facing a rocky new year after failing to raise the $750m it needs to produce its slate of 17 films. Some of the money was to have been provided by AIG, the insurance giant that collapsed in September. No new investor has yet emerged.

Even Harry Potter, the most profitable franchise in film history, isn't totally secure. Its screenwriter, Steve Kloves, said recently that Warner Bros was worried about the prospects for the last three films in the series, since J K Rowling is no longer driving anticipation for the titles by producing new books.

Paying by instalments...

Franchise hits

Harry Potter Surpassed 'Star Wars' and 'The Lord of the Rings', with $4.5bn (£3.1bn) in sales. Three instalments remain. The 'Half-Blood Prince' will be released next year.

Twilight Vampire tale had teenagers lining up outside cinemas for midnight screenings, and international receipts are $200m and counting. Three further books have already been published.

Franchise misses

Narnia Disney pushed the eject button after 'Prince Caspian', the second in the series, took $440m, down from $750m for the original, 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe'.

His Dark Materials Tanked in US cinemas, where its first instalment, 'The Golden Compass', took just $70m. Foreign receipts of $300m saved Warner Bros.

Franchise hopefuls

Star Trek Superstar director J J Abrams, a $200m budget and a "sexed-up" plot make May's prequel one of the big gambles of 2009. Paramount hopes to revive the franchise, but the first trailer divided Trekkies.

Da Vinci Code Tom Hanks is back with a fresh conspiracy movie based on a Dan Brown potboiler. This one is set in the Vatican.

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