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‘Evan’ struggles to find right audience

Identity crisis for pricey comedy sequel

Did Universal’s pricey comedy “Evan Almighty” suffer an identity crisis heading into its opening weekend?

Sequel is far more family friendly than the adult-themed “Bruce Almighty,” but not all parents may have gotten the message. Same for the Christian crowd.

Instead, they may have remembered such scenes as Jim Carrey’s character using his godly powers to give his girlfriend an orgasm from another room or assumed the current film would be more in line with star Steve Carell’s ribald “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Conversely, auds who enjoyed “Bruce” may have been scared off by the new pic’s more religious storyline.

“Evan” is the first sequel of the summer to open well below previous installments. Pic, starring Carell instead of Carrey, bowed to $32.2 million, less than half of the $68 million “Bruce” took in its 2003 opening.

Still, the film is hardly sunk.

“Evan” did finish the weekend at No. 1 and, pointing to positive exit polls and cinema scores, U execs say they expect the film to have good word of mouth and strong legs. They also report that auds were fairly evenly divided between families and adults, as well as between the religious and nonreligious.

What’s causing U the biggest migraine is “Evan’s” cause celebre status as the most expensive comedy ever made. The minute word of the budget — estimated to be $175 million — began circulating, the studio knew it would be fighting an uphill battle, despite the fact that U had a co-financing partner in Relativity Media.

Studio has been reminding the press that “Night at the Museum” made only $30.4 million during its first weekend. That nonsequel family tentpole, estimated to have cost $140 million-$150 million, went on to gross more than $250.8 million domestically.

“Museum,” however, had relatively clear sailing after opening at Christmas, whereas “Evan” faces a crowded frame with the upcoming releases of Disney-Pixar toon “Ratatouille,” “Transformers” and the next “Harry Potter” installment.

Universal is under no illusions that “Evan” will reach the same heights as “Museum” but is hoping to near $100 million domestically. Studio also says the overseas box office and ancillary revs will be very important to the bottom line.

“Evan’s” less-than-hoped-for opening underscores the enormous risk involved with using a sequel to go off in a new direction. Unlike “Evan,” other sequels this summer relied on the same stars and tone.

U was certainly counting on a four-quadrant hit, and while “Evan” was No. 1, it was only $12 million ahead of Dimension’s horror pic “1408,” with “Evan” scoring a per-theater average of $8,655 at 3,604 theaters and “1408” drawing an average of $7,699 at 2,678.

Historically, a franchise often changes because of a new director. “Evan” and “Bruce,” however, were both helmed by Tom Shadyac.

Universal itself acknowledges the huge challenges involved with marketing a film that’s actually a spinoff, or companion piece, vs. a traditional sequel.

Studio has been aggressively courting Christian moviegoers, hiring marketing and publicity firm Grace Hill Media, which specializes in that arena. How much of that market segment actually materializes is still in question.

The origins of the sequel began when spec script “The Passion of the Ark,” by Bobby Florsheim and Josh Stolberg, went into auction not long after Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” became a box office sensation thanks to the Christian turnout.

Shadyac was at the center of U’s bid for the script, which had a premise similar to what was carried over to “Evan Almighty.” Sony landed the winning bid, however, and ultimately partnered with U to try to turn it into the “Bruce Almighty” sequel.

Jim Carrey, known to dislike doing sequels, left the door open to starring in the follow-up. Steve Oedekerk, who collaborated with Shadyac and Carrey on the “Ace Ventura” pics and “Liar Liar,” was hired to retrofit this project into “Evan Almighty.”

In 2005, however, Carrey demurred. That’s when Shadyac decided to retrofit the project as a vehicle for Carell, who played the small but memorable role of Carrey’s newsroom rival in the original pic. At that point, Sony turned down its option to co-finance the pic and handle foreign distribution.

Universal’s intent all along was to make a f/x-driven family tentpole, much like “Night at the Museum,” and knew it would have to spend at least $140 million.

Heading into this weekend, U isn’t planning any major changes to its marketing campaign for “Evan” except to tout the fact that the film landed at No. 1 and attracted a broad aud, including families.

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