LOS ANGELES — At the height of Eddie Murphy’s popularity, millions of Americans flocked to his hit films like “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Coming to America.” Paramount Pictures executives are crossing their fingers that even a fraction of that interest surfaces for the actor’s “A Thousand Words,” a comedy that arrives in theaters this weekend nearly four years after it was made and seemingly a lifetime removed from Murphy’s 1980s heyday.
Going out with minimal publicity support from the star, the DreamWorks production has generated tepid interest in pre-release surveys, and analysts expect an opening weekend box office of less than $10 million. A Paramount spokeswoman said the movie cost $40 million. But two people familiar with the production who were not authorized by the studio to speak publicly on the subject pegged the price tag at about $70 million.
To boost interest, the studio has targeted female and black filmgoers with a series of promotions and ads while hoping that Murphy’s return to his comedic wheelhouse will take care of the rest.
“This is a sweet, heartfelt movie, and it’s a chance to see Eddie do some very physical comedy,” said Megan Colligan, Paramount’s president of domestic marketing and distribution. “He’s really funny in this film.”
A high-concept comedy about a fast-talking book agent, “A Thousand Words” harks back to Jim Carrey comedies including “Liar Liar” and “Bruce Almighty.” (“Words” scribe Steve Koren also penned “Bruce Almighty.”) Successful but prone to ethically dubious behavior, Jack McCall (Murphy) is thrown for a loop when he discovers a tree whose leaves fall off whenever he speaks. He’s told by a mystical figure that the tree’s branches will be bare after he utters 1,000 words, at which point he will die. The set-up yields numerous opportunities for Murphy to engage in gestures and exaggerated body language.
“A Thousand Words” was one of the last movies made while DreamWorks was a Paramount subsidiary, and it was left at Paramount for the studio to market and distribute when the two entities parted ways. When the film went into production in 2008, there was reason for the studio to be optimistic about the arrangement. Murphy was not far removed from his 2007 Oscar nomination for his supporting role in “Dreamgirls”; his 2007 hit “Norbit,” which like “Words” was directed by the comedy veteran Brian Robbins; and his third go-round as the voice of Donkey in the animated “Shrek the Third.”
But Murphy’s career soon took a nose dive. His next two leading roles, in 2008’s “Meet Dave” (also directed by Robbins) and “Imagine That,” were box-office fiascos, with neither reaching $20 million in domestic receipts. Paramount decided to put some distance between “Words” and those films, according to a person familiar with the studio’s internal discussions who was not authorized to talk about them publicly. “Imagine That” in particular was an issue because of its similarities to “Words,” the person said. (Released by Paramount in 2009, “Imagine That” also centered on a brash high-flier who is taught humility.)
“Words” also received poor marks from test audiences soon after completion, according to two people familiar with the screenings who were not authorized to talk about them publicly.
Last summer, Paramount looked to be getting a boost when Murphy was named host of the 2012 Oscars. But those hopes went up in smoke last fall when Murphy withdrew from the gig shortly after the show’s producer, Brett Ratner, resigned. The November returns from Murphy’s “Tower Heist,” which managed only $78 million in domestic box office, didn’t help.
Throughout last year, Paramount played musical chairs with the “Words” release date, postponing the PG-13 film from Jan. 13, 2012, to March 23, then delaying it to April 20. Finally, Paramount opted to push up “Words” to March 9.
In finally bringing out the movie in about 1,500 theaters, Paramount may have been motivated as much by financial factors as marketing strategy. After a period, typically three to four years, studios must write-down the cost of a movie as a loss if they have not yet released it, according to two people familiar with entertainment business accounting who did not want to be named because they were not involved with the film. Such a charge, the people said, could have dinged the bottom line of Paramount’s parent, Viacom Inc., more than a flop.
Paramount also went through several regime changes along the way but Colligan said that corporate drama played no role. “This was not a movie that was going to spoil in some way,” she said. “We just wanted to look for the play period that gave us the best opportunity to find the biggest audience for this movie.”
Those opportunities include ads on broad network shows such as “The Voice” and “The Bachelor” matched with spots in more targeted black venues, such as a sponsorship on “Tyler Perry’s House of Pain” and a promotion on BET. Much of the TV campaign has skewed female, with “Real Housewives,” and Lifetime’s “Dance Moms” in the mix.
Meanwhile, Murphy has done minimal press, appearing on no late-night or morning talk shows; he did sit for a junket day.
By spending years in the cupboard, “Words” joins a list of long-delayed studio movies. Its lag is of a similar duration to another Paramount picture, the Renee Zellweger thriller “Case 39,” which came out in 2010 despite shooting in 2006. But the studio can take solace in the fact it doesn’t hold the record in this department: Fox Searchlight’s 2011 release “Margaret” was on the shelf for nearly six years. Neither film performed well.
(Staff writer John Horn contributed to this report.)