Sometimes you can see something coming from a mile away and still be surprised when it hits you in the face.
A few weeks ago I noticed that Evan Almighty, Universal’s sequel-in-name-and-Morgan-Freeman-only to 2003’s mega hit Bruce Almighty, was inching towards the vaunted $100 million dollar mark at the domestic box office. The movie had flopped upon its initial release, causing enormous embarassment for Universal and sending the studio into another poor fiscal performance for the quarter. Despite the widespread denouncement of the film, crossing the century line at the box office would be a sign of moderate success for what is known as the most expensive live-action comedy ever made.
The number was too important for Universal (as well as all members of the production with performance bonuses in their contracts) not to hit it, so the achievement seemed a pretty foregone conclusion. The only problem was that the movie wasn’t making enough end of the run money to hit the number. And that’s when I knew that something fishy was about to happen.
Three days ago Evan Almighty crossed the $100 million dollar mark by grossing a dubiously high one day gross on its 13th weekend. Nobody in the press or online world picked up on it, but I did. And I’m gonna tell you all about it.
But first, a quick discourse on star contracts: built in to all contracts for above the line players and below the line decision makers (that being the director, exec and regular producers, and sometimes the writer) are performance escalators that pay out when the movie they’re making hits certain financial goals. Twenty million dollar opening weekend, hundred million dollars domestic, hundred million dollars international, one million DVD units sold, and so on. These bonuses are independent of the actual salary, so an actor or director or producer doesn’t need to do ANYTHING to get the money, so long as the movie does well. You make the movie, promote it like hell, hope people like it and wait for the easy money to roll in. Therefore it is of great interest for all creative players involved that a movie score at the box office and trigger the bonuses.
To give you an example of the money we are talking about, I once got to see the Van Helsing contract for character actor Kevin J. O’Conner. He was the sixth billed lead and barely recognizable to anyone that isn’t a die hard fan of Deep Rising and yet his bonus for Van Helsing hitting $100 million was something north of $150,000. That doubled if the film hit $150 million, and so on in increments of $50 million. Seeing as how Van Helsing opened to $50 million, grossed $120 domestic and $180 internationally, and moved more than six million units on home video, I’m guessing O’Conner’s escalators paid him out to the tune of $500k. Not too shabby for sitting on your ass and not answering to how exorable the movie turned out. So keep these relatively low numbers in mind as we start talking about the bigger names involved in Evan Almighty.
On the studio side, a film grossing $100 million is important for a variety of reasons. It’s a clearly-defined financial marker than can be conveyed as a success to financiers and stockholders. As well, and more importantly, the box office of a film directly affects the home video sales. Grossing certain box office numbers dictates the number of copies vendors will put in stores for retail and purchase. A movie that tanks cannot be expected to do big home video business because the retailers won’t support their volume needs, but a hugely successful movie is virtually guaranteed to succeed in home video because of the perceived customer demand gleamed from the box office take. Kevin Smith has talked at length in commentaries and interviews about how important it was for Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back to do at least $30 million because it meant he’d sell an extra $300k DVD’s. The math only goes north from there.
I’m gonna take you through a calendar of events surrounding Evan Almighty’s road to $100 million and let you decide for yourself if I’m just seeing things (all information can be found HERE):
6.22.07 – Evan Almighty opens to extremely high expectations. High production costs, reshoots and big salaries for stars Steve Carrell, Morgan Freeman, writer Steve Oedekerk and director Tom Shadyac drove the budget of the film to a reported $175 million, making it the most costly comedy in the history of cinema, even accounting for inflation. Universal, banking on the strength of the franchise’s original film and the audience goodwill of Steve Carell generated by the previous summer’s sleeper hit The 40 Year-Old Virgin, pushed the film hard, hoping the film would match Bruce Almighty’s $240 million box office gross, or at the very least, the industry accepted 30% sequel dip. So the realistic box office goal of the film was about $175 million, or roughly the exact amount of the production budget. International box office would recoup the marketing and distribution fees and with a hearty home video take the film would prove to be quite profitable. But that’s not what happened.
6.24.07 – Evan Almighty takes in $31 million in its opening frame, less than half of what Bruce Almighty took in its first weekend, and a good $15 million below industry expectation. The film is quickly labeled as a flop, and rightly so.
7.1.07 – By its tenth day in theaters, Evan Almighty has only grossed $60 million. By this point in its run, Bruce Almighty had taken in $137 million.
8.1.07 – The film has showed moderate legs, grossing $36 million for the month of July, to bring it’s total to $96 million. This is where I started to take notice.
8.28.07 – Evan Almighty crosses $99 million. At the rate it’s going it should theoretically cross $100 million dollars in about 17 days, or on September 13th.
9.13.07 – On the film’s 84th day of release, Evan is still languishing in sub-$100 million hell. It has only grossed $745,000 in the last 17 days. By this revised estimate, $100 million is still one week away. This is when I made the most prescient statement since I predicted that Heroes would be the breakout hit of last season, six months before it premiered. I remember looking at Evan’s numbers and thinking “I bet it crosses $100 million this weekend with a crazy, unexplainable bump in the numbers”. I will leave it to you to decide if I was right.
Friday 9.14.07 – Evan grosses $40,425 in 385 screens, a standard decline of 20% from the previous Friday, though notable in that the previous Friday’s numbers came from 120 fewer screens. Based on this formula, Evan could look to gross about $75,000 on Saturday, a 20% decrease from the previous weekend’s $94k.
Saturday 9.15.07 – Evan Almighty, in its 86th day of release, grosses $209,825 dollars! Does that number seem odd to you? Let me put that number into perspective.
- That total is 419% increase from the day before.
- It’s a 55% INCREASE from the previous Saturday, where as the Friday to Friday numbers DECREASED 20%.
- The last time Evan Almighty grossed more $200k in a single day was July 29th, 48 days before, when the film was playing on 700 MORE screens!
- The last Saturday Evan was in an equal number of screens was August 25th, the film’s 65th day of release, when the film took in $138k. That’s a 50% bump three weeks later. Um, hello?
Sunday 9.16.07 – Evan Almighty grosses $44,275 to cross the $100 million mark. It is a 79% drop from the ginormous day before, but only a 35% drop from the previous Sunday, holding to traditional box office patterns. There is no evidence to explain the boost in ticket sales for Saturday, and Sunday’s grosses do little to support the theory that the day was nothing more than an aberration. Or was it?
I hold that that number was inflated on purpose. I can’t say which side was responsible for the boost, the creative team wanting their escalators or Universal wanting to say the film grossed $100 million and save some face, but I can firmly state that box office grosses for Evan Almighty were artificially inflated on Saturday, September 15th in a last ditch attempt to hit the century mark.
I’m not deploring the tactic, box office tampering has been going on for decades, and in the long run who really cares anyway; I take pause with the egregiously conspicuous way in which it went down. Slowly pump up the numbers for a couple days during the week so you can prove the film was tracking higher, and then evenly distribute the money across the entire weekend. Don’t let the film do the exact amount of business expected for a full week and then dump $130k on a single day!!! That’s how you get caught. It’s just a terrible way to perpetuate a harmless fraud. And a rather expensive way to meet your goals. Mathematically speaking, if you assume that the combined performance bonuses for the big four involved in Evan Almighty hitting the century mark (Carell, Freeman, Oedekerk, Shadyac) was $3.5 million, then someone spent $130,000 dollars to cost the production 37 times that amount! It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that some phone calls were made last week and a proverbial hat was passed around town, collection donations for the Evan Almighty emergency funds.
This piece of information might not be of interest to anyone, but I thought it was pretty fascinating to see the machinery of big business studio economics at work. And I thought it was apropos that a movie made only on the pretense of making money and not artistic achievement, solved their flagging box office problem by doing the exact opposite action of the intent of the film, yet repeating its pointless origin: they spent money to make money (which made them spend MORE money).
Congratulations to Evan Almighty for crossing the century mark at the box office; I hope all involved are having a good time opening their mail this week.