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Studio’s leap of faith in ‘Evan’

Special to The Times

When Hollywood finds religion, it usually runs away -- declining to distribute “The Passion of the Christ” or playing down spiritual themes in “The Chronicles of Narnia.” But on Friday, Universal Pictures will release “Evan Almighty,” an overtly spiritual Noah’s ark comedy squarely aimed at the nation’s faithful.

In investing more than $200 million in the film’s production and marketing, Universal is betting that blue-state filmmakers can once again tap into red-state values.

It’s been decades since biblically grounded films -- such as Richard Burton’s “The Robe” (1953) and Charlton Heston’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956) -- were routine major studio fare. In recent years, religiously themed movies were either low-budget works like “The Nativity Story” or self-financed productions such as Mel Gibson’s divisive “The Passion of the Christ.” When the big studios did explore serious religious narratives, the price in controversy sometimes outweighed the rewards at the box office, as was the case with Universal’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988.

If “Evan Almighty” turns into a summer hit, as several competing studio executives predict, the movie could put Hollywood back in the business of making big-budget movies that intentionally embrace sacred subjects.

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“For some reason, Hollywood doesn’t make this kind of movie,” says Tom Shadyac, the director of both “Evan Almighty” and its racier predecessor, 2003’s “Bruce Almighty,” whose religious message was less palpable. “I don’t know if it’s out of fear. I really don’t. Maybe we’re not living as closely to these themes.”

Christian moviegoers have been an increasingly hot target since Gibson’s “Passion” grossed more than $370 million in 2004. In assembling “Evan Almighty,” Universal and Shadyac endeavored to create a crowd-pleasing, but nondogmatic, parable. The goal was to appeal not only to fans of star Steve Carell -- last seen searching for a willing woman in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” -- but also liberal environmentalists and more socially conservative audiences who rarely venture into the multiplex.

Toward that end, “Evan Almighty” combines Carell’s distinct physical and verbal comedy with straightforward scenes about faith. Just a few minutes into the movie, Carell’s character gets on his knees and prays to God. Unlike the higher-power conversations in the George Burns’ “Oh, God!” comedies from 30 years ago, it’s not done purely for laughs.

“Until I actually saw that on screen, I hadn’t realized how extraordinary it felt to see it,” says Marc Shmuger, Universal’s co-chairman.

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Carell plays Evan Baxter, a television anchorman recently elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He has vowed to “change the world,” but it’s clear his campaign slogan is an empty promise. He drives a gas-guzzling Hummer, buys an outsized mansion with cabinets that are tooled from 300-year-old Brazilian hardwood and agrees to sponsor a massive land-grab bill he hasn’t yet read.

As the film opens, Baxter’s wife tells him she has prayed that their family (including three boys) will grow closer. Before turning into bed, Baxter gets on his knees, and, after expressing thanks for his new home and car, he calls on God for guidance. “Please help me change the world,” he prays.

The next morning, Baxter’s alarm clock blinks Gen 6:14 (“Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood,” the passage reads), and other biblical references start coming from all directions.

God (played by Morgan Freeman) appears at Baxter’s doorstep, as do truckloads of lumber and a copy of “Ark Building for Dummies.” Pairs of animals start following Baxter wherever he goes, and the clean-shaven congressman quickly starts looking more and more like a hirsute Heston in “The Ten Commandments.”

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The film’s jokes are rooted in Baxter’s unwillingness to become a nail-hammering disciple. But its more serious message focuses on faith: God has called him to build an ark, and build an ark he must. “I know this sounds crazy,” Baxter tells his increasingly disturbed wife, “but I really have to do this.”

In marketing the film to parts of the country that Hollywood often derides as “the flyover states,” Universal has to convince audiences that “Evan Almighty” seeks to honor -- rather than belittle -- religious devotion. And since the preceding film in the series, “Bruce Almighty,” featured Jim Carrey’s often bawdy humor, the studio must also convince audiences that the PG-rated “Evan Almighty” is safe for families.

Audience tracking surveys indicate Universal still has to work to attract that family audience, and “Evan Almighty” is competing for that crowd against Disney / Pixar’s animated “Ratatouille,” the tale of a young rat who dreams of being a gourmet chef, which opens June 29.

To build interest in “Evan Almighty” among religious audiences, the studio partnered with Grace Hill Media, a local publicity and marketing firm formed to assist Hollywood studios bridge the religious divide with the country’s estimated 200,000 churches and millions of worshipers.

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Grace Hill’s Jonathan Bock came up with the idea of Ark Almighty.com, a website that houses craigslist-like message boards for 8,000 churches. It matches local needs with church resources, such as house painting and assisting the homeless. Grace Hill also set up screenings for religious organizations and distributed marketing and educational materials, including videos and movie-themed curriculum.

David Welch, whose Youth Specialties in San Diego provides training and educational material for youth ministries, attended a Universal screening in April to see if “Evan Almighty’s” tone was appropriate for his group. “Some of us had raised eyebrows because ‘Bruce Almighty’ had parts people found objectionable, mostly vulgarity,” Welch says. But he liked the sequel more than the original.

“Critical to us, because we work with youth, is the theme of: ‘What do you do when you feel called on by God, like Noah, but your family thinks you’re nuts?’ ” Welch says. “If a kid has a calling or a mission from God, we want them to know they’re not nuts.”

While the rest of Hollywood will be watching “Evan Almighty’s” performance -- producer Jerry Weintraub holds the “Oh, God!” remake rights -- smaller studio divisions have begun testing the faith-based waters.

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20th Century Fox has FoxFaith, a division launched last year and charged with making six religion-themed films a year, albeit with modest budgets. Awaiting release from FoxFaith is “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” based on the stage play about the weakening of the African American family, and currently in production is “Mama, I Want to Sing!” about a preacher’s daughter who rises from the church choir to international pop stardom.

Shadyac is convinced “Evan Almighty” is the right movie at the right time. He says he was particularly encouraged by an “Evan Almighty” research screening in Olathe, Kan., in April. As the preview drew to a close, the filmmaker tried to sneak out of the theater, but one woman in the audience recognized him and confronted him.

“You don’t know what you’ve done,” the woman said.

“Have I done something wrong?” Shadyac asked.

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“No,” she said. “It’s just that we need this movie so badly.”

Horn is a Times staff writer; Crabtree is a Times correspondent.

john.horn@latimes.com

sheigh.crabtree@latimes.com

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