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Budget Overruns of Biblical Proportions

Universal tries to tame spending that may make `Evan Almighty' the costliest comedy ever.

October 09, 2006|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

In Universal Pictures' upcoming "Evan Almighty," comedian Steve Carell plays a Noah-like congressman commanded by God to hoard hundreds of animals in an ark the size of a cruise ship.

In real life, the movie is taking on water. Studio executives are struggling to tame a soaring budget that will probably make the film the most expensive comedy ever.

Unexpected costs for visual effects and the logistical challenges of filming hundreds of live animals have turned what was supposed to be a $140-million movie into a $160-million one that could climb as high as $175 million by the time it's finished. With marketing expenditures, the film is expected to cost at least $250 million.

Although movies going over budget is common, a 25% overrun is high, even by Hollywood standards. Studios are loath to spend too much on comedies because they usually have less success with audiences abroad than do action films.

On an expensive movie, Hollywood relies on international box office to make its money back.

Studio executives acknowledged that they underestimated the cost of "Evan," a sequel to the 2003 hit "Bruce Almighty." But they are confident it will be profitable.

"This movie is a great bet," said Universal Chairman Marc Shmuger. "It's a spectacle fantasy and also a comedy. And a sequel to one of the most successful hits in the studio's history."

Former Universal studio chief Stacey Snider and her boss, Universal Studios President Ron Meyer, gave the movie the go- ahead in December. Snider left in April to join DreamWorks SKG.

Snider's successors, Shmuger and co-Chairman David Linde, say most of the added expenditures came from 11 extra shooting days in Virginia, where the production, which began filming in March, encountered bad weather as well as delays from trying to coordinate animals and children's shooting schedules.

People close to the production say the studio was pushing for a December release that cut the film's preparation time by more than half -- from six months to a little more than two. With so little preparation time, they said, the filmmakers were unable to properly map out details of what would prove a complicated shoot.

In addition, if they had waited one month to begin production they would have avoided much of the bad weather.

This is the first time Linde or Shmuger have overseen a production of the scale of "Evan."

Before his promotion, Shmuger oversaw marketing and distribution for Universal while Linde handled lower-budget specialty films as co-president of Universal's Focus Features. "Bruce Almighty," which starred Jim Carrey, grossed more than $500 million world-wide. However, "Bruce" cost half the amount of the sequel.

At $175 million, "Evan" would hold the dubious honor of being the most expensive comedy ever. "Evan" will surpass such other visual effects comedies as "Wild, Wild West" at $170 million, followed by "Men in Black II" at $140 million, said Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo, a box office tracking service. Although "Men in Black II" was a hit, "Wild, Wild West" was a costly misfire.

The studio is counting on the universal appeal and familiarity of the biblical story of Noah's Ark. And Carell is a rising star in Hollywood, coming off last year's hit "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and the popular sitcom "The Office."

In "Evan," Carell, who had a relatively minor role in "Bruce Almighty," plays a self-obsessed congressman who learns the value of helping others when he is told by God (played by Morgan Freeman) to build an ark to prepare for a flood.

"It's based on two story sources: 'Bruce Almighty' and the Bible, both of which were incredibly successful," Linde said.

The story calls for a storm and flood of biblical proportions, which helps explain some cost overruns. Rendering a realistic look to chaotic events such as fires and floods takes many hours -- usually days -- to generate the computer images.

Meanwhile, filming hundreds of animals presented its own problems. Predatory creatures such as lions and tigers cannot be shot with monkeys and giraffes. Filmmakers must abide by numerous regulations regarding the treatment of animals, and even the best-trained animals do not always follow orders. Sometimes a color or a scent can throw off an animal, delaying filming.

"Unpredictable things happen," said Jeff Okun, vice chairman of the Visual Effects Society. "Animals have good days and bad days too. You have to hope for the best, but plan for the worst."

The movie also called for the building of massive set pieces, including at least three arks -- the largest of which was 450 feet long and 65 feet high on the set in Virginia. Bad weather hampered set construction and cost the production millions, according to people on the production.

Tom Shadyac, the director of both "Evan" and "Bruce," does not have extensive experience with visual effects films and is known more for such straight-up comedies as "Liar, Liar" and "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective."

Shadyac declined to comment.

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