tom3.jpgThere’s none of the usual reassuring platitudes. Instead, moguls at the studio are resorting to just plain prayers. Because Universal isn’t even trying to hide its nerves about the opening number this Friday for Hollywood’s most expensive comedy ever, Evan Almighty, or what the movie could make in gross receipts overall. Don’t get me wrong, it’ll open, either to the $50+ mil my box office gurus are projecting, or the $40 mil the studio is understating. (Every major is a master of lowered expectations this summer.) But, given the $210 mil budget, I’m told it needs $500 million worldwide to be really profitable. Universal, of course, calls this ”voodoo math”. It claims that the pic’s budget is only $175 mil and with no first-dollar gross players thanks to a renegotiation it can see a profit at $250 mil worldwide.

So what’s the problem? The parents and kids tracking, which is not included as part of general tracking and therefore not immediately accessible to journalists. I’m told parents were rejecting this big summer film as appropriate family fare because they thought it was the exact sequel to Bruce Almighty and therefore too mature. evanalmighty_bigteaserposter.jpg(Other big four-quadrant PG blockbusters like Night At The Museum didn’t have to contend with this unique “sequel that isn’t really a sequel” situation.) “It’s awful. It hasn’t moved in weeks,” a source from a rival studio told me. “Can you tell me how a movie that is PG rated, has 3,000 animals, and boasts God, can’t get parents to take their kids?”

It’s not all bad news for the latest Almighty. Many of the other tracking numbers are finally shooting upwards these last days leading to release because of the studio’s Hail Mary marketing onslaught. The “First Choice” numbers for kids doubled over the weekend and and is doubling day by day, while “Want To See” among tweens, teens and young adults keeps rising. But while the movie now has a very high “Awareness” factor, which is a given for a follow-up to a successful film, the crucial indicator of “Unaided Awareness” is still very low. “All our different marketing campaigns are finally starting to really crystallize and accelerate. But we don’t have ‘Unaided Awareness’ yet where we need to see it,” a Universal source admitted to me last night. (Today, that figure rose as well.)

evan-large.jpgIt’s a risk when 40% of a studio’s movie marketing campaign, by design, is back-loaded like this one. Rightly or wrongly, that strategy was devised for this crowded summer marketplace where tentpole after tentpole is opening weekend after weekend, and moviegoers show signs of sequel fatigue. It saves money (and keeps Universal’s penny-pinching parent company GE from nagging). But it’s already pissed off producer/director Tom Shadyac who I previously reported had an explosive meltdown during a Universal marketing meeting about his pic. I’m told Ryan Kavanaugh of Relativity Media, whose tanking Gun Hill Road 2 independent co-financing fund is one of the movie’s principal investors, is among those privately criticizing Evan Almighty‘s budget and marketing as well. (Kavanaugh is publicly boasting how he capped his share of the costs so the more Evan goes over, the more Uni has to absorb by itself.) Then again, Universal is accustomed to being crapped on for this movie by more than just the animals.

universal_logo1.jpgNo one would have given a rat’s ass if the movie’s budget hadn’t done a slow creep way beyond its initial $150 million comfort zone or the film hadn’t been an 89-minute quickie in the comedy genre which is usually cheap to make without the CGI. (Universal’s own R-rated comedy Knocked Up this summer cost a mere $30 mil. And later in the summer, it’ll have the PG-13 laugher I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry.) But reporters couldn’t ignore the first smells surrounding a piss-poor combination of animals who didn’t want to perform, children who can’t work long hours, and weather in Virginia that didn’t cooperate.

Evan Almighty had already been put into production when Marc Shmuger and David Linde entered into their shotgun marriage to run Universal Pictures, with Universal Studios President/COO Ron Meyer playing minister. So don’t judge their still brief tenure by this film. shmuger_linde.jpgThere wasn’t much the duo could do for an inadequately budgeted pic in the first place beyond renegotiating profit participation deals so the studio could jettison the first dollar gross players and have at least a prayer of recouping its dough. (There’s a “past cash” break now.) In the meantime, the pair have changed the way their studio’s film budgets are drawn up and directed, upping Jimmy Horowitz from biz affairs into the newly created role of co-prez of production, aka beancounter as mogul. Even so, few inside or outside the studio initially worried about Evan Almighty’s prospects. Almost everyone thought the pic would be a slam dunk the same way Bruce Almighty was in 2003 when it scored a $68 million opening weekend and went on to nearly $500 million gross receipts worldwide. And this new script had even more God-is-great propaganda than the first one.

Universal moguls have convinced themselves that religious America will turn out for this family fun in droves. I’m not so sure, and I may look like an idiot at the end of the summer by saying so. tom20.jpgEven though the studio is dragging out every trick in the Christian playbook, including that PR firm to the religious Grace Hill Media, to convince holy-rollers in fly-over country to see this take-off on the already tired Noah’s Ark tale. I suspect The Passion Of The Christ crowd wants stories based on the New Testament than the Old Testament. Leave it to heathen Hollywood not to comprehend that.

But Evan isn’t so much a Bruce sequel as it is a spin-off, more like an adopted brother than a blood brother with very different DNA in terms of content and audience appeal. And yet the studio marketing still told audiences that Bruce begat Evan. Instead of Jim Carrey, the pic has not-nearly-as-famous Steve Carell (but considering the trajectory of Jim’s career vs Steve’s right now, that could turn out not to be a bad thing except in foreign markets). The rating has gone from PG-13 to PG. A two-quadrant pic became a four-quadrant movie. The boob and toilet jokes are gone in Evan. Instead, the humor has been sacrificed at the altar of heartwarming. Last week, both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter reviews complained about the lack of yucks.

Still the studio is placing its trust in Shadyac, whose movies (Ace Ventura, The Nutty Professor, Liar Liar and Patch Adams) don’t please snot-nosed critics but satisfy lame-ass audiences. Now, even the long-standing relationship between the director and Universal is frayed. tom-shadyac.jpgThat became evident a few weeks ago when he blew up at a studio marketing meeting, bitch-slapped executives and fired his own long-time marketing consultants Buffy Shutt and Kathy Jones. Even though the director calmed down later and apologized, even though he always gets nervous before his movies open, Shadyac was unusually maniacal because he thought Universal wasn’t buying enough TV time. (See my previous: Shadyac Mayhem Over ‘Evan’ Marketing for more detail.) Since his blow-up, Shadyac is looking right on the money and Universal is looking wrong.

Warner’s Harry Potter commercials were already on the air in May even though it doesn’t open until July 11th. But not Evan Almighty. Though TV ads started popping up recently on Nickelodeon and networks, the studio was also marketing the pic in non-traditional ways through 50-city screenings aimed at church groups and religious leaders. Also, movies like Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean 3, which opened on the same day in markets around the world, garnered humongous global marketing budgets, whereas Evan Almighty spent the usual $50 million for a domestic only release. Shadyac wanted the marketing for his $210 million pic to increase accordingly to at least $80 mil. Universal balked. “We’re not just going to throw money away because Tom wants to become part of the big summer blockbuster culture,” a studio insider told me. Get real. That’s exactly how it’s done.

general_electric_logo.jpgWhose fault this is, Universal’s or GE’s, is debatable. ”It’s no secret that GE is looking for ways to cut costs and one of the places those people look first is movie marketing,” a Uni source explained. “The parent company keeps asking, ‘Why do we have to buy so much network time? And why so early? And why can’t we buy it just a week before?’ ”

Presently, box office gurus expect attendance to fall off sharply Evan’s second week out because of this brutal summer. Competing films like Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille (opens June 29th) is garnering great reviews while Paramount / DreamWork’s Transformers (July 3rd) is tracking gigantic. And even though Night At The Museum debuted to only $30 million, it kept going and going for $572 mil worldwide. One of the Universal moguls tells me after some arm-twisting he’d be satisfied with $125 mil before the pic starts opening overseas. To me, that meager figure is Evan Almighty gone to hell, not heaven.

Previous: Shadyac Mayhem Over ‘Evan’ Marketing

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