THERE’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 numbers this Friday for Hollywood’s most expensive comedy ever, Evan Almighty, starring Steve Carell and a shitload of animals, as well as what the movie could make in gross receipts overall. The reason has been the parents’ and kids’ tracking, which is not included as part of general tracking and therefore not immediately accessible to journalists. I’m told the data showed that parents were rejecting this big summer film as appropriate family fare because they thought it was the exact sequel to the Jim Carrey–starring Bruce Almighty and therefore too mature. (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 upward 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 “Want to See” among tweens, teens and young adults has risen.

Meanwhile, the studio is dragging out every trick in the Christian playbook, including that PR firm to the religious right, Grace Hill Media, to persuade Holy Rollers in flyover country to see this takeoff on the already tired Noah’s Ark tale. However, I suspect the Passion of the Christ crowd wants stories based on the New Testament rather than the Old Testament. Leave it to heathen Hollywood not to comprehend that.

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 too 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. That’s the risk a studio takes when 40 percent of its marketing campaign, by design, is back-loaded like this one.

Rightly or wrongly, that strategy was devised for this crowded summer marketplace, where tent pole after tent pole is opening weekend after weekend, and moviegoers are already showing 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 had an explosive meltdown during a Universal marketing meeting about his pic. I’m told Ryan Kavanaugh of Relativity Media, whose Gun Hill Road 2 independent co-financing fund is one of the movie’s principal investors, is among those privately criticizing Evan Almighty’s marketing as well.

Then again, Universal is accustomed to being crapped on for this movie by more than just the animals. No 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 to $210 million and if the film hadn’t been an 89-minute, CGI quickie in a genre that’s usually cheap to make. (Universal’s own R-rated Knocked Up this summer cost a mere $30 mil.) But reporters couldn’t ignore the first smells of failure surrounding a piss-poor combination of animals that didn’t want to perform, children who couldn’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. There wasn’t much the duo could do for this inadequately budgeted film in the first place, beyond renegotiating profit-participation deals so the studio could have at least a prayer of recouping its dough.

EVEN SO, FEW INSIDE OR OUTSIDE the studio 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 in gross receipts worldwide. And this new script had even more God-is-great propaganda than the first one. But Evan isn’t so much a Bruce sequel as it is a spinoff, more like an adopted brother than a blood brother, with very different DNA in terms of content and audience appeal. And yet the studio’s marketing stupidly told audiences that Bruce begat Evan.

Instead of Carrey, the pic has the not-nearly-as-famous Carell (but considering the trajectory of Jim’s career versus Steve’s right now, that could turn out to be not such 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, reviews in both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter complained about the lack of yuks.

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. That became evident a few weeks ago when he blew up at a studio marketing meeting, bitch-slapped executives, fired his own marketing consultants Buffy Shutt and Kathy Jones, and generally created mayhem. “He was completely out of control,” one insider told me. Said another: “He was abusive, aggressive and obnoxious.”

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. “I’m not seeing any ads, and I don’t know why,” he said to the assembled group of about 30. “I’m only hearing about all the other summer movies, and nothing about mine.” Since his blowup, 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 11. But not Evan Almighty. Though TV ads started popping up recently on Nickelodeon and networks, the studio was also marketing the pic in nontraditional ways, such as 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.

The studio balked. “The problem is, Tom wants people seeing TV ads for Evan Almighty on the equivalent of the Super Bowl every five minutes. But 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.

Whose 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 anticipate a $50 million opening weekend (though Uni is talking an understated $40 mil) but then expect attendance to fall off sharply. That’s because of competing films like Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille, which opens June 29 and is garnering great reviews, and DreamWorks/Paramount’s Transformers, which opens July 3 and is tracking gigantic. That means Evan Almighty may need a miracle to get to movie heaven. Otherwise, it’s straight to hell.

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