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Universal prays amid weak launch for ‘Evan’

Times Staff Writers

“Evan Almighty” could be the first big-budget bomb of the summer after opening to $32.1 million in U.S. and Canadian weekend ticket sales, based on Sunday’s estimate from Universal Pictures.

The modern-day Noah’s Ark tale, starring Steve Carell, cost more than $250 million to produce and market.

Universal had been counting on the PG-rated movie -- its most expensive production this year and one of the priciest Hollywood comedies ever -- to be its summer “tent pole.” Now the studio and its financing partner, Relativity Media, are hoping it holds up well enough that they can come out unscathed. More broadly, the film’s poor opening could temper any enthusiasm in Hollywood for making expensive, overtly Christian films.

At least one box-office analyst called the opening “a disaster of biblical proportions,” but Universal kept faith.

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“It’s a really good launch to a film that’s going to be talked about with friends and family,” said Nikki Rocco, the studio’s president of domestic distribution. She said 95% of ticket buyers surveyed rated the picture “excellent” or “very good,” boding well for word of mouth.

Other family-oriented comedies in recent years, including “Elf” and “Night at the Museum,” have opened in the $30-million range and gone on to become blockbusters, she noted. But they cost a lot less to make.

The first movie in the “Almighty” series, 2003’s “Bruce Almighty,” grossed $68 million in its opening weekend and went on to generate $243 million domestically and about the same amount abroad. But that film opened on Memorial Day weekend and had a different star in Jim Carrey and a cruder tone, with its PG-13 rating. “Evan Almighty” is more of a spinoff than a standard sequel.

Though it fell far shy of analysts’ predictions, “Evan Almighty” was No. 1 at the weekend box office, ahead of the surprisingly strong horror film “1408" and the holdover sequel “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” which both grossed about $20 million.

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This summer’s biggest hits, “Spider-Man 3" and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” have been embraced by foreign audiences, but it remains to be seen how “Evan Almighty” will be received abroad. It opened to $1.7 million in Russia and Ukraine as the studio begins a gradual roll-out.

Universal had to sell “Evan” to two disparate audiences that normally do not watch the same movies: Christians who prefer family-friendly films, and fans of raunchy comedies such as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Carell’s breakout hit.

“The key to success of a movie like ‘Evan’ is to attract the faith-based audience while not alienating the secular audience,” said analyst Paul Dergarabedian of research firm Media by Numbers. “Now they have to count on the movie having legs by having a strong word of mouth with the faith-based audience.”

Universal said nearly half of this weekend’s adult customers surveyed described themselves as “frequent attendees of religious services,” including non-Christian observances.

“Evan” faces a strong slate of upcoming films including Walt Disney Co.'s animated comedy “Ratatouille” and Paramount Pictures’ warring-robot epic “Transformers,” a likely hit with men and teenage boys.

For Hollywood, reaching both a religious audience and the mainstream has proved tricky.

Two years ago, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” played to family audiences while also satisfying Christians with its allusions to a crucifixion and resurrection. That film grossed $745 million worldwide.

Distributor Disney did not play up Christian themes in its marketing campaign. Instead, “Narnia” was sold as a classic children’s tale with universal themes of good versus evil, betrayal, sacrifice and forgiveness.

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Despite being a comedy, “Evan” is explicit in its religious references. Carell’s character, Evan Baxter, is awakened at 6:14 in the morning -- a reference to the biblical passage in Genesis in which God commands Noah to build the ark.

Inspired by the themes in the film, Universal’s Christian outreach partner, Grace Hill Media, launched an “Ark Almighty” program intended to help churches do good deeds for those in need.

At Christianity Today magazine’s movie website, the generally positive review included theological discussion points for Christians.

“ ‘Evan Almighty’ isn’t perfect, but it is both inspired and inspiring,” wrote reviewer Carolyn Arends. “I can’t wait to share it with my family.”

But some evangelical Christians might consider the film to be “heretical” in its pantheistic view of God living in all beings, said Ted Baehr, publisher of Movie Guide, a Christian guide to movies and entertainment.

“If you are going to make a movie that contains overt religious references, it has to be woven into the story,” Baehr said. “When it becomes cloyingly religious it doesn’t work. ‘Evan’ is neither too far in the direction of embracing its spirituality or cutting edge or funny and unique. It was pushing hard into the Christian community, but the ads that they were sending out were not compelling.”

Although studio executives are keen to tap religious audiences, they typically proceed with caution. Other than Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which grossed $612 million worldwide, overtly religious films have not generated huge box-office returns in recent years.

Last year, despite more than 300 screenings for church groups and an aggressive religious outreach campaign, New Line Cinema’s “The Nativity Story” grossed a disappointing $46 million worldwide. It cost the studio about $65 million to make and market.

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* Scaring up business: The Stephen King adaptation “1408,” starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, opened to a surprisingly strong $20.2 million -- the best result yet for a Weinstein Co. film released through MGM under their distribution deal. While R-rated “torture porn” films have struggled recently, some PG-13 fright flicks such as “1408" have clicked with moviegoers. Weinstein co-founder Bob Weinstein called “1408" a “throwback to movies like ‘The Omen,’ ‘Poltergeist’ and ‘The Shining’ that rely on more psychological terror than audiences are getting.”

* A tough sell: “A Mighty Heart,” starring Angelina Jolie as the widow of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, opened to only $4 million in wide release despite positive reviews. Paramount Vantage’s post-9/11 drama was produced for $16 million.

josh.friedman@latimes.com

lorenza.munoz@latimes.com


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