Low tide for 'Evan' bow

$32.1 mil under forecast; '1408' checks in 2nd

Read about the international box office weekend

Taking a page from the biblical story of Noah's ark, Universal Pictures launched its PG-rated comedy "Evan Almighty" during the weekend. But while the film floated atop the North American boxoffice with an estimated $32.1 million, the studio found itself battling a perception that the returns on the pricey movie were less than miraculous.

Paramount Vantage's debut of the true-life thriller "A Mighty Heart" also appeared to meet resistance. The political thriller, opening in 1,355 theaters, bowed to an estimated $4 million for a 10th-place showing overall.

On the other hand, MGM's release of the Weinstein Co.'s PG-13 horror show "1408" exceeded expectations, seemingly reversing the boxoffice curse that has bedeviled R-rated horror movies in recent months by checking in with a strong second-place showing and an estimated $20.2 million.

For the fourth consecutive weekend, boxoffice returns for the top 10 films were down compared with the same frame a year ago. According to Nielsen EDI, the weekend's top 10 collected $122.6 million, down 2% from last year, when Sony Pictures' comedy "Click" led the listings with a $40 million opening.

Given "Evan's" price tag -- the studio has officially pegged it at $175 million -- the movie might have set itself up for a fall. It follows in the wake of Jim Carrey's PG-13 "Bruce Almighty," which opened in 2003 to a three-day take of $68 million during the Memorial Day weekend.

But "Evan" -- from director Tom Shadyac and screenwriter Steve Oedekerk, who both worked on the original -- was designed more as a spinoff than a direct sequel. The new movie follows Steve Carell's character -- a preening newscaster in the first film -- who has been elected to the U.S. Congress and has moved his family to Virginia, where God (again in the form of Morgan Freeman) comes calling with predictions of stormy weather. In a bid for the family audience, "Evan" stayed within PG territory and, with its biblical overtones, even reached out to heartland Christian audiences.

With the latest tracking studies leading into the weekend suggesting that "Evan" would arrive in mid-$30 million territory, the movie's $32.1 million came up short. Its ultimate fate will depend on how much of a family audience it can attract during the next few weeks.

Universal reported Sunday that families accounted for 45% of "Evan's" opening-weekend audience, with parents comprising 24% of the crowd and children under age 13 another 21%. Slightly more than half of the overall audience, 52%, was over 25. The film earned an A-minus rating from cinemaScore.

Still, while the movie might have represented the best showing ever for newly minted star Carell -- surpassing the $21.4 million opening of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" in 2005 -- "Evan" now must prove itself in the face of those who already are pointing to it as the first big-budget victim of the summer.

Universal toppers Marc Shmuger and David Linde responded with a statement, saying: "We are proud of 'Evan Almighty' and of the efforts everyone made to bring this unique film to the public. Every time we have screened 'Evan' for an audience, we have seen it consistently entertain people of all ages. As this weekend's positive audience rating polls indicate, the charms of 'Evan Almighty' are persuasive, and we have every hope that moviegoers will continue to discover it in the weeks ahead."

Last year, 20th Century Fox's "Night at the Museum," another CG-augmented comedy with family appeal, bucked similar odds. Opening to $30.4 million in late December -- its per-theater average of $8,258 paralleled the $8,910 of "Evan" -- it went on to gross $250.9 million domestically. But "Evan" faces stiff competition: On Friday, Buena Vista Pictures opens Pixar's "Ratatouille," and the latest "Harry Potter" arrives in just more than two weeks, meaning that "Evan" could find itself battling to cross the $100 million line.

"Multiples (of opening-weekend gross) can be very high for PG-rated films. At this time, there's always room for a number of family films in the market because people have lots of moviegoing time," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said. "People love the film, and I'm very optimistic about how it will play. We're in it for the long haul."

"1408," on the other hand, appears to have benefited from opting for a broader-based PG-13 rating than the more restrictive R carried by recent horror films. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom ("Derailed"), the adaptation of a Stephen King story, starring John Cusack as a paranormal investigator caught up in spooky goings-on in a hotel, beat the odds as it picked up $7,533 per theater at 2,678 locations. Its $20.2 million was the best opening for a King adaptation, outdoing the $18.2 million bow of "Secret Window" in 2004.

The film was produced under the Weinstein Co.'s Dimension Films label, and company co-chairman Bob Weinstein attributed the film's success to the fact that "it is more old-school horror. Instead of violence, it relies on psychological horror." While younger moviegoers responded to the genre underpinnings, Cusack and co-star Samuel L. Jackson provided the film with a pedigree that attracted older moviegoers.

Meanwhile, Harvey Weinstein was celebrating the debut of Michael Moore's health-care documentary "Sicko" in one theater in New York, the AMC Loews Lincoln Square, where it took in an estimated $70,000 during the weekend. The film also played public sneak previews Saturday night in 43 theaters around the country, with Weinstein Co. reporting sellout showings.

"The crowds turned out in full force to get an early look at 'Sicko,' and our exit surveys show that audiences love the film," Harvey Weinstein said. "Once again, Michael has made a movie that is both highly entertaining and extremely provocative."

The film will roll out Friday nationwide through Lionsgate, with the exact number of theaters for its controlled launch still being decided.

Specialty films division Paramount Vantage gambled by opening the serious-minded "A Mighty Heart" -- director Michael Winterbottom's account of the kidnapping and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl as seen through the eyes of his wife Mariane (Angelina Jolie) -- in 1,355 locations, where it pulled in a lukewarm $2,956 per-theater average.

A Vantage spokesman said that "Mighty Heart," drawing primarily women over 30, performed best on the coasts and more sophisticated top 20 markets. "We're getting great recommends, and there was good news from the critics, so we're going to focus in on key markets," he said.

Among the holdovers, last weekend's leader, 20th Century Fox's "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," took the biggest plunge, falling 65% for a third-place finish overall. Its estimated haul of $20.2 million -- it trailed "1408" by just $25,000 -- left its cume flirting with the $100 million mark at an estimated $97.6 million.

In fifth place, Universal's comedy "Knocked Up" again demonstrated a strong hold, falling just 24%. In the process, it became the eighth film of the year and only the second R-rated film -- the first being Warners' "300" -- to cross the $100 million bar. Its take of an estimated $10.6 million brought its cume to nearly $109 million.

On the exclusive front, Roadside Attractions opened its first title, the offbeat "Colma: The Musical," since it set out to distribute its own films. Playing in a single 140-seat theater in San Francisco, the film grossed an estimated $9,036, with evening sellouts reported. It moves on to New York on July 6 and will expand into major markets through the month.

IFC Films' "You Kill Me" launched in 35 theaters to an estimated $247,000.

Picturehouse expanded "La Vie en Rose" to 118 theaters, where it collected an estimated $737,000, bringing that film's cume-to-date to $3.9 million.

Miramax Films' "Eagle vs. Shark" expanded to 18 theaters, grossing an estimated $35,000, to bring its cume to $66,000.

For the week ending Thursday, total boxoffice was $222.5 million, down more than 4% from the $234.6 million amassed during the comparable week a year ago. Domestic boxoffice stands at $4.32 billion year-to-date, up more than 4% from last year's $4.14 billion. Admissions are essentially flat.