Tracking trepidations flummox Fox

While Hollywood is trying to guess whether “Borat” will be a hit or an overhyped miss, Sacha Baron Cohen is already thinking about his next movie character creation.

Cohen, whose “Borat” preemed at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Monday, has solidified plans to spend next summer shooting another reality-based film featuring a character he’s creating. He will co-write the pic and produce with “Borat” producer Jay Roach.

New project will be financed by Media Rights Capital; sales agency Mandate and Cohen will seek to tempt international distributors next week at AFM. The character’s a closely guarded secret, but the film’s game plan closely replicates the one followed on the Larry Charles-directed “Borat,” which was shot guerrilla-style on an $18 million budget and then purchased by 20th Century Fox.

Much as unsuspecting people try to gauge the strange and hapless Kazakhstan interviewer, Fox and rival distributors are trying to figure out what to make of the “Borat” box office potential.

While the film has benefited from a wave of crackling Internet buzz, strong reviews and knockout festival screenings, “Borat” hasn’t registered as strongly in tracking reports. So far, it has scored below rival fare, from “Catch a Fire” to “Babel,” in audience awareness.

But Fox maintains standard tracking methodology doesn’t apply. “This is a new genre of movie,” said Jeffrey Godsick, exec VP of marketing for 20th Century Fox. “The awareness is beginning with a targeted audience. When you are breaking a new kind of genre, not everyone knows what to make of it.”

And laffers are the hardest films to handicap through tracking: Hits like “There’s Something About Mary” and “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” performed better and longer than tracking numbers indicated they would.

Worried that “Borat” could become a phenomenon, rival distrib execs weren’t eager to program against it.

The studio is setting up a slower rollout than originally expected. Pic will bow on around 800 screens — fewer than many expected — Nov. 3, and then broaden to a nationwide release as reviews circulate and awareness builds.

A rival studio distribution exec, who attended a recent “Borat” screening that was part of the buzz-building Los Angeles Blackcarpet screening series organized by MySpace.com, described audience reaction as nothing less than manic. Lines snaked around the block. Kids, dressed in Borat garb, took to a mic positioned in front of the auditorium to do their best impersonations.

Some skeptics pointed to the Internet-hyped “Snakes on a Plane” as a reason for caution, but others noted that while “Snakes” was slammed by critics, “Borat” has received glowing notices so far.

At Monday’s preem, Cohen was to be ushered into his preem by a phalanx of Kazakh locals bearing fruits and wonders of the country. Plans were for Borat to be carried, bridelike, to the podium by an oversized woman. There, he would address the throng of press and fans and respond to a recent invitation to visit Kazakhstan, which has tried to disown Borat almost from the moment he claimed it as his country of origin.

Premiere got a late start, creating a line of preem-goers along Hollywood Boulevard from the Chinese Theater’s box office to Highland Avenue close to the scheduled 8 p.m. start.

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