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Saturday, July 7, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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"Evan Almighty" task: to lure the faithful

Religion News Service

LOS ANGELES — Talk about a Second Coming.

God has returned to Hollywood, with Morgan Freeman resurrecting his role as God in a natty white suit, this time opposite Steve Carell playing a congressman-turned-modern-day-Noah in "Evan Almighty," currently showing in local theaters.

The comedy, with its estimated $175 million price tag, is a kinder, gentler sequel to the 2003 blockbuster "Bruce Almighty," which took in $240 million in box-office receipts with Jim Carrey in the lead.

But given the earlier film's sometimes off-color humor, and Carell's less-than-wholesome image from "The 40 Year Old Virgin," studio executives and filmmakers took care to ensure "Evan" would appeal to families and particularly Christian audiences.

"[There] was a conscious effort to invite everyone to this movie," said director and producer Tom Shadyac, whose credits include "Bruce Almighty," "Patch Adams" and "Liar Liar."

"This is an ark story with animals, a flood and a big boat, and I thought it would be insane to not invite a 2-year-old, a grandparent and everyone in between."

Faith in mind

Universal started screening the film for general audiences in Sacramento, Calif., about five months ago. Adam Fogelson, Universal's marketing director, said viewers liked the film's interfaith perspective that didn't come off as preachy.

"The movie reflected the morals and values and habits of many millions of Americans of multiple faiths that ... are frequently absent from mainstream entertainment," Fogelson said.

Universal then teamed up with Grace Hill Media — which had worked on "Bruce Almighty," "The Chronicles of Narnia" "Lord of the Rings" and other films — to market the film to faith-minded audiences.

The result was ArkALMIGHTY.com, a Web site the encourages churches to "follow God's call for Christians to always do good — to friends, neighbors, family members, to strangers, even to those who don't like us." Partners include the International Bible Society, Youth Specialties and the Willow Creek Association.

Jonathan Bock, who worked as a Warner Bros. publicist before starting Grace Hill in 2000, said about 7,000 churches have signed up, allowing members to post needs and give church members opportunities to help others.

On June 5, the film was screened for about 18,000 pastors. A week later, on June 12, "Evan" presented a Christian rock concert called Rock the Boat, featuring Switchfoot, Jeremy Camp, Relient K and DecemberRadio, at the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City to benefit Habitat for Humanity.

"Part of what we wanted to do was to show the Christian community that this is a film you can feel very comfortable rallying behind if you choose to do it," Bock said.

Asked if Hollywood risked taking evangelical support for granted — which could in turn cause evangelicals to feel exploited — Bock said it's a simple matter of economics.

"The reality is that if you offend people or they feel exploited," he said, "then they are not going to buy your product."

Fogelson, from Universal, said the studio allowed Shadyac to make the film he wanted, and didn't dictate edits that were targeted at a specific audience.

"The story, and how it was being told and how it was being edited, that was what was in Tom's heart and mind from the day he went off to make the film," Fogelson said.

Going green

Part of the discussion on ArkALMIGHTY touches on environmental protection — cleaning parks, planting trees and recycling — a central theme of the film. Not coincidentally, environmental "stewardship" has become a major topic of debate among some evangelicals.

Shadyac tried to "go green" with the film, planting trees, using two-sided scripts and providing bicycles instead of cars for crew members.

Craig Detweiler, co-director of the Reel Spirituality program at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said the film is ultimately about stewardship and people's responsibility to take care of what God has given them.

"It asks us a serious question about the responsibility of the environment," he said, "but does it in a humorous way."

Loren Wilkinson, a professor in interdisciplinary studies and philosophy at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., said the film reflects a growing awareness that God cares about the whole creation.

"The Christian message has never been about the saving of individual human souls out of a doomed world," Wilkinson said. "It's good news for the whole creation, or it's not good news at all."

For Shadyac, an important message in the film is that God says he isn't destroying the world anymore — humans are.

"This movie is about the environment, meaning you and me and the gift of the world that we live in," he said.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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