There is no magic potion for surefire Hollywood success. Not even the magic potions in fantasy films can guarantee a box-office hit anymore.

The latest evidence comes from The Golden Compass, which pulled in roughly $26 million in gross receipts on its opening weekend. That would be a decent take for low-budget movies released into the usual heavy competition, but Compass cost about $180 million to make and was the only major release this weekend.

Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) subsidiary New Line Cinema was clearly hoping to repeat the smashing success of its Lord of the Rings franchise, only to find that the bottle is out of lightning. News Corp. (NYSE:NWS) (NYSE:NWS-A) learned this hard truth a couple of months ago, when The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising bombed out with a $3.7 million opening weekend. That movie set an all-time record for the largest drop in number of theaters between the standard opening two-week obligation and week three, according to Box Office Mojo.

The fantasy genre has been an easy cash cow for Hollywood in the past few years. Scare up a simple plot, throw in some dragons and a wizard, collect the profits. But it isn't that easy anymore.

I don't think the genre is dead yet. It's just that the studios will have to put some TLC into making these movies, unless they like that empty-theater smell. Disney (NYSE:DIS) proved it can be done two Decembers ago, with the tent-pole installment of its Narnia saga. The latest Harry Potter sequel pulled in nearly $1 billion worldwide, so Warner won't give up on fantasy just yet.

You knew LotR would be good when Peter Jackson signed up for the job, and the kids love Harry too much to pass up even a mediocre adaptation. But by all accounts, Compass and Dark Is Rising both slaughtered some excellent source materials. They stooped to flash and cliche where they needed a story and some heart.

Spiderwick Chronicles is coming up early next year, and it looks like Viacom's (NYSE:VIA) (NYSE:VIA-B) Paramount and Nickelodeon studios put some effort into this one. You get name-brand producers with a solid fantasy resume, Spielberg's favorite editor, and an Oscar-winning composer for the soundtrack. If that one goes down in flames, it could take years to rebuild the audience's interest in fantasy again. But I think Viacom will show us how it's done. There's still some alchemy left in those books.

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