Budget Overruns of Biblical Proportions
In Universal Pictures’ upcoming “Evan Almighty,” comedian Steve Carell plays a Noah-like congressman commanded by God to hoard hundreds of animals in an ark the size of a cruise ship.
In real life, the movie is taking on water. Studio executives are struggling to tame a soaring budget that will probably make the film the most expensive comedy ever.
Unexpected costs for visual effects and the logistical challenges of filming hundreds of live animals have turned what was supposed to be a $140-million movie into a $160-million one that could climb as high as $175 million by the time it’s finished. With marketing expenditures, the film is expected to cost at least $250 million.
Although movies going over budget is common, a 25% overrun is high, even by Hollywood standards. Studios are loath to spend too much on comedies because they usually have less success with audiences abroad than do action films.
On an expensive movie, Hollywood relies on international box office to make its money back.
Studio executives acknowledged that they underestimated the cost of “Evan,” a sequel to the 2003 hit “Bruce Almighty.” But they are confident it will be profitable.
“This movie is a great bet,” said Universal Chairman Marc Shmuger. “It’s a spectacle fantasy and also a comedy. And a sequel to one of the most successful hits in the studio’s history.”
Former Universal studio chief Stacey Snider and her boss, Universal Studios President Ron Meyer, gave the movie the go- ahead in December. Snider left in April to join DreamWorks SKG.
Snider’s successors, Shmuger and co-Chairman David Linde, say most of the added expenditures came from 11 extra shooting days in Virginia, where the production, which began filming in March, encountered bad weather as well as delays from trying to coordinate animals and children’s shooting schedules.
People close to the production say the studio was pushing for a December release that cut the film’s preparation time by more than half -- from six months to a little more than two. With so little preparation time, they said, the filmmakers were unable to properly map out details of what would prove a complicated shoot.
In addition, if they had waited one month to begin production they would have avoided much of the bad weather.
This is the first time Linde or Shmuger have overseen a production of the scale of “Evan.”
Before his promotion, Shmuger oversaw marketing and distribution for Universal while Linde handled lower-budget specialty films as co-president of Universal’s Focus Features. “Bruce Almighty,” which starred Jim Carrey, grossed more than $500 million world-wide. However, “Bruce” cost half the amount of the sequel.
At $175 million, “Evan” would hold the dubious honor of being the most expensive comedy ever. “Evan” will surpass such other visual effects comedies as “Wild, Wild West” at $170 million, followed by “Men in Black II” at $140 million, said Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo, a box office tracking service. Although “Men in Black II” was a hit, “Wild, Wild West” was a costly misfire.
The studio is counting on the universal appeal and familiarity of the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. And Carell is a rising star in Hollywood, coming off last year’s hit “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and the popular sitcom “The Office.”
In “Evan,” Carell, who had a relatively minor role in “Bruce Almighty,” plays a self-obsessed congressman who learns the value of helping others when he is told by God (played by Morgan Freeman) to build an ark to prepare for a flood.
“It’s based on two story sources: ‘Bruce Almighty’ and the Bible, both of which were incredibly successful,” Linde said.
The story calls for a storm and flood of biblical proportions, which helps explain some cost overruns. Rendering a realistic look to chaotic events such as fires and floods takes many hours -- usually days -- to generate the computer images.
Meanwhile, filming hundreds of animals presented its own problems. Predatory creatures such as lions and tigers cannot be shot with monkeys and giraffes. Filmmakers must abide by numerous regulations regarding the treatment of animals, and even the best-trained animals do not always follow orders. Sometimes a color or a scent can throw off an animal, delaying filming.
“Unpredictable things happen,” said Jeff Okun, vice chairman of the Visual Effects Society. “Animals have good days and bad days too. You have to hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”
The movie also called for the building of massive set pieces, including at least three arks -- the largest of which was 450 feet long and 65 feet high on the set in Virginia. Bad weather hampered set construction and cost the production millions, according to people on the production.
Tom Shadyac, the director of both “Evan” and “Bruce,” does not have extensive experience with visual effects films and is known more for such straight-up comedies as “Liar, Liar” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”
Shadyac declined to comment.
The cost overruns on “Evan” prompted the movie’s profit participants, who take a certain percentage off the first dollar made by the studio at the box office, to adjust their deals. They will not start collecting their take until the studio recoups its production and marketing costs.
The ballooning numbers come as all studios are attempting to slash budgets and crack down on rich talent deals that cut into their profits. With DVD sales flattening, box office revenue decreasing and production and marketing costs rising, studios try to lower their risks by finding outside financing partners. Sometimes they scrap expensive movies altogether.
In May, 20th Century Fox pulled the plug on the Carrey comedy “Used Guys” because of its $115-million price tag. Paramount Pictures refused to move forward on another Carrey movie, “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” because the budget was creeping above $150 million.
Originally, Universal hoped to co-finance “Evan Almighty” with Sony Pictures Entertainment, which considered distributing the film abroad. However, after analyzing the numbers, Sony passed after determining that it would be difficult to make money given the budget and profit participation deals, according to a studio source.
Relativity Media, a film financing company with a deal to co-finance 16 movies at Universal, agreed in May to pay for half of the “Evan” production budget, a Relativity spokeswoman said.
But even with a partner, “Evan” could end up costing the studio at least $163 million, including worldwide marketing costs of about $75 million.
“Evan” comes amid a challenging year for Universal. “Miami Vice,” which cost at least $135 million, sank at the box office. Its latest releases, the murder mystery “The Black Dahlia” and the musical “Idlewild,” also flopped.
Still, the studio is expected to be profitable this year, thanks in part to hits such as “The Break-Up” and “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” which have grossed $189 million and $147 million worldwide, respectively.
Universal is relying on “Evan” to be one of its biggest hits next summer, along with the third installment of the thriller franchise “The Bourne Ultimatum” and the comedy “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.”
Gary Barber, chief executive of Spyglass Entertainment, one of the producers on “Evan Almighty,” said although the film had gone over budget, he too was confident of its appeal.
“Is it costing a little more than we wanted? Yes,” he said. “Is it worth it? Definitely. This has the potential to be bigger than the original.”