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Milking the Bible for laughs

December 26, 2007|Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

For many people, the holidays are a time for visiting with the extended family, reflecting on spiritual matters and relaxing by a toasty fire with something entertaining to read. In that case, the gleefully heretical "Year One" screenplay would have made a great stocking stuffer.

The story in its broadest terms involves a loony Old Testament road trip. Cocky, clueless Zed and his beleaguered friend Oh flee their isolated village and end up traipsing Forrest Gump-like through a mash-up of BC history. They have deliciously blasphemous run-ins with Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Seth and Lilith, and stumble upon Isaac and Abraham, who is suddenly struck by an impassioned commitment to circumcision.

Penned by writer-producers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg ("The Office") with director Harold Ramis ("Vacation"), the script has great anachronistic fun with the idea of applying contemporary characterizations and language to a biblical context, and vice versa (i.e. "I want to lay with her so badly" and "What happens in Sodom, stays in Sodom").

Ramis, who co-wrote and directed "Analyze This" and "Groundhog Day," here veers back toward the screw-loose zaniness of his early work in "Caddyshack" and "Stripes." "Year One" embraces all the raunchy exuberance that "Evan Almighty," which also played with Christian scripture, shunned (though it certainly shares some of Evan's juvenility).

It'll make a nice companion piece to Monty Python's "Life of Brian" and "Caveman," the grunting 1981 prehistoric comedy written by Rudy De Luca and Carl Gottlieb that put Ringo Starr, Shelley Long and Dennis Quaid in loincloths.

With a cast led by Jack Black and Michael "Superbad" Cera, "Year One's" irreverent material could beget big audiences. Zed is written so perfectly for Black that reading his dialogue is like hearing Black read the script to you (upon hearing that Sodom will be destroyed: "When do you think all this smiting is going to go down?")

Cera's vulnerable delivery was made for moments like Oh's response to a palace guard whipping him: "Why don't you try using your words for a change?" Filming on the Judd Apatow production will begin in January for a Columbia Pictures release in AD June 2009.

A formula for success . . . really

Warning to studio readers -- two marketing professors at the Wharton School could very well put you out of a job.

Actually, Z. John Zhang and Jehoshua Eliashberg (plus a bevy of coauthors) claim that their goal is merely to augment your special talents, not replace them. But the paper they published in Management Science magazine in June called "From Story Line to Box Office: A New Approach for Green-Lighting Movie Scripts" establishes a statistical model for analyzing screenplays and predicting whether a resulting movie will be successful at the box office. Which, if accurate, would render your silly personal judgments obsolete.

Greenlighting, or putting a screenplay into active production, relies mostly on the subjective intuition of readers and executives (plus a studio calculus derived from the budget and the past record of the film's genre and potential cast). It's a system that can produce, shall we say, spotty results. Zhang and Eliashberg hope to take some of the guesswork out of it. Their model combines textual analysis (paragraph construction, frequency and distribution of words, etc.) with structural analysis (a clear premise, a surprise ending, and the like) using 22 yes-or-no queries that are posed and then cross-referenced.

"There is no good tool that you can use to do the risk management for that business," Zhang said. "With our model, we could eventually help the studios to actually pick a portfolio instead of just one single movie. This is like picking stocks, and you have a certain combination that will give you the same kind of expected return but minimize your risk."

"It's more of an additive, a supplement to your own gut feelings," Eliashberg added. "But it makes you sleep better because this is sometimes a $165-million decision."

Needless to say, reading the paper itself is like trying to decipher the plot of "The Big Sleep" with the sound off. (You can give it a shot by purchasing access on the Management Science website: And the whole premise -- that anyone or anything, scientific or not, could predict success at the script stage -- has its share of gaping plot holes.

But Zhang points out that the industry already does marketing studies to predict box-office success based on the combination of promotional resources employed during release.

Their new system merely attacks the question from the front end of the process and provides the added benefit of recommending scripts with hidden potential.

"It can help to identify all sorts of diamonds in the rough," Eliashberg said. "Things that for some reason, based on pure judgment, get eliminated. If we bring out a more objective approach, they will go through and the public will benefit from that."

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