Framing Science

With $3.5 million earned in its weekend box office debut, Bill Maher’s Borat-inspired mockumentary about religion managed to just edge the opening weekend for Ben Stein’s Expelled.

Religulous, which opened in half as many theaters as Expelled, outgrossed Stein’s weekend take by roughly $600K. Religulous benefited in part from a massive free media campaign, with Maher appearing on shows ranging from The View and Conan OBrien to NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Still, given major studio backing for the film, the producers are likely to be somewhat disappointed with the returns. Expect the run to expand beyond 500 theaters for next weekend, which will be the make or break test for the mockumentary.

Comments

  1. #1 jeffk
    October 6, 2008

    Two nitpicks:
    1) a “mockumentary” is fake. This is a documentary.
    2) While I do love NPR, I’m pretty sure he got more exposure on the Daily Show and Larry King.

  2. #2 Der Bruno Stroszek
    October 6, 2008

    Expelled isn’t the underdog in this race, though. Religulous was, as you mentioned, in about half the theaters Stein’s effort was, there were no first-weekend bus-ins or other incentives to get there first (anyone remember the Ben Stein bobblehead dolls?) and whereas Maher might have appeared on more chat shows than Stein the actual advertising campaign was nowhere near as pervasive as Expelled. I agree that it will be interesting to see how it does in the second week: I don’t predict great things, but I suspect it will at least be better than Expelled‘s lemming impersonation.

  3. #3 Scote
    October 6, 2008

    “Expect the run to expand beyond 500 theaters for next weekend, which will be the make or break test for the mockumentary.”

    Just a note. “Mockumentary” means fake documentary not a “mocking” documentary. Religulous is not a “mockumentary,” it is a real documentary that looks at religion, and it looks like you are trying to frame its success as a failure by falsely disparaging it as a “mockumentary” and by speculating that the producers should be disappointed with the box office take. Why would you speculate on that rather than just report the facts?

  4. #4 Matthew C. Nisbet
    October 6, 2008

    I use the term “mockumentary” ironically and as a criticism of the film, which I see doing little else than mocking the easy target of fundamentalist religion. See my earlier post on Maher’s preference for “Borat atheism.”

  5. #5 Andrew
    October 6, 2008

    Is there info on how much it took to make the film?

    Gross figures don’t really tell you anything useful – bringing in 3.5million total for a 500k outlay is a rather nice success but if the oulay was 5million…

  6. #6 Tulse
    October 6, 2008

    Matt, I really don’t understand how you can be so reserved about the opening weekend performance of this film when you said that similar performance by Expelled was a huge success. Why the negative framing? Religulous arguably has a much smaller built-in audience (only 10% or so of Americans call themselves non-religious), appeared on half the number of screens, did not appear to have nearly as large a marketing budget, and the producers did not arrange for organizations to promote it to their members and bus them in to showings. It had the third-largest opening of any documentary, and second-highest per-screen average for an opening. How is this not hugely successful by any reasonable standard?

  7. #7 Paul W.
    October 6, 2008

    Matt,

    I expect you’ll post something about how groundbreakingly, trendsettingly, and maybe game-changingly successful this movie is, as you did for Expelled, which it is beating hands down. (Higher gross, over 2x the per-screen take on opening weekend, vastly better reviews, probable legs, etc.)

    The fact that you don’t like the movie shouldn’t enter into that sort of analysis, should it? (After all you didn’t like Expelled, either.)

    Tulse is right. If Expelled was a success as you said it was, this is an astonishing success, isn’t it?

    Given the large fraction of the population that already doubted evolution before Expelled came out, and the very small fraction that doubted God before Religulous came along, Religulous is doing several times as well as Expelled, relative to it’s natural target audience size.

    By your standards, it’s an unprecedented, huge smash hit.

    You should admit that, or perhaps that you were wrong and overdramatic about Expelled.

  8. #8 Winawer
    October 6, 2008

    Andrew, I wrote a comment about the budget this morning, but it appears to have been eaten by the filters for having too many links (3 was too many?). In short, Googling told me that the budget for Religulous was somewhere around $2.5 million, according to USA Today and EW online.

  9. #9 Brian Schmidt
    October 6, 2008

    Expelled looks like a modest commercial success, including anticipated DVD sales. By that standard, Religulous should be quite successful. I don’t know how Matt could argue that $6700/theater revenues for a semi-wide release is disappointing when it’s the second highest per-theater rate for movies in wide release last weekend.

    I also expect that Religulous has much better overseas potential than Expelled. Religulous cost $2.5m to make versus $3m for Expelled, and marketing seems much lower budget. Bottom line seems to significantly favor Religulous.

  10. #10 Inoculated Mind
    October 9, 2008

    Opening weekend or not, tactics of not, new definitions of “mockumentary” or not, I think the measure of success of a political documentary should be in its ability to change opinions or motivate people to enact change. It seems that Expelled has motivated people, but they are, as we already know through experience, on a hair-trigger to push anti-evolution legislation or curricula. Did Expelled result in any actual changes on the lawbooks? (It is helpful to note that Expelled was part of a political campaign with legislative acts ready to be submitted on the film’s release. So when measuring the ‘success’ of Expelled, you have to take into account that it is a part of a political effort, and the effects are not solely due to the film itself)

    On the flipside, Religulous isn’t associated with any particular political campaign, nor did it give any specific goals, so I’m not sure, apart from an exit poll, how we could measure the ‘success’ of Religulous. As for its commercial success, it is already outshining Expelled.

  11. #11 Tulse
    October 18, 2008

    According to Box Office Mojo, after a little over two weeks Religulous has surpassed the total domestic box office that Expelled amassed over its entire run. And that is while playing in about half the theatres that Expelled did.

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