Expelled: Success or Failure?

It’s Monday morning, three days after the opening of the creationist propaganda piece Expelled, and everyone seems to be talking about whether the film can be considered to be a success or not. Wing Nut Daily says that it was a resounding success (despite coming in at #8), while many of my fellow science bloggers don’t see it that way at all. I guess it all depends on what your definition of “success” is.

The numbers that have come in so far indicate that Expelled took in about 1.2 million dollars on Friday, which quickly dipped to $990,000 on Saturday on $958,000 on Sunday, making the total weekend haul about $3.1 million. As it stands now, that makes Expelled the 8th highest grossing political documentary, although there is a very wide gap between the top four political documentaries (three of which are Michael Moore films) and the rest, #4 being Bowling for Columbine at $21,576,018 and #5 being Roger and Me at $6,706,368. If we consider all documentaries, it looks even worse for Expelled. The hit nature film March of the Penguins had a domestic gross of $77,437,223, and Expelled may have to struggle to reach even the modest success of Super Size Me (which had a domestic gross of only $11,536,423).

UPDATE: This post was written when some of the numbers provided above were still estimates, and since then the real figures have come in. Expelled made only $775,000 on Sunday, substantially less than the $958,000 I initially reported, the weekend total being only $2,970,848. The amount made dropped 17% from Friday to Saturday and a further 21.7% from Saturday to Sunday. It didn’t make $958,000 on Sunday, that was based on the $3.1 million projection. It actually made only $775,000 on Sunday, and the actual weekend total was $2,970,848 (per-theater average of $2,824). The take dropped 17.8% from Friday to Saturday and a further 21.7% from Saturday to Sunday. Overall it came in at #10 for the weekend, and it is presently ranked at 12% on (Thanks to Jim Lippard for the update/correction)

In the case of Expelled, some have argued that since it was so cheap to make that even a modest showing at theaters will have the filmmakers raking in the benjamins. I’m not so sure. The people behind the film spent a lot of time and money advertising the movie, and now they appear to have several lawsuits on their hands. Their goal seemed to be to drum up support from churches and people sympathetic to their message, urging potential viewers to rent out theaters and take their congregations to go see it together, but even if such events did occur they don’t seem to have done very much over the weekend. There’s no way to know right now, but such a poor showing across the 1,000 screens it was released on may lead some theater managers to soon expel the film from their establishments; the release of Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay later this week is likely to push Expelled further down the list, if not out of some theaters.

Is it all about the money, though? Chris Mooney may think so, but if we are to believe Stein & the creationists who appear in the film they’re really after social change. They’d probably like to see people pressure schoolboards to be sympathetic to intelligent design (or “critique Darwinism” in creationist lingo), and I don’t think it would be shocking if some people who saw the film tried to get creationism into the science classroom. Such attempts may very well backfire, however, giving evolution a more public platform and legally knocking down creationism (although such outcomes are by no means guaranteed). Even if such cases never occur, next year is going to be a big deal (200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th of the publication of On the Origin of Species), and hopefully a lot will be done to raise evolution awareness amongst the public. Philadelphia is off to a good start by kicking off the “Year of Evolution” this past weekend, and hopefully other cities will have similar programs.

I imagine that Expelled will ultimately do better on the DVD circuit than in theaters, being a staple of creationist websites and Christian book stores, although how quickly it fades from theaters will remain to be seen. From what I can see, however, the film is a flop and did not receive anywhere near the attention the filmmakers were hoping for. They advertised the hell out of the film (there was not a day that went by when I didn’t see at least two Expelled advertisements on the internet on a variety of websites, including, but it seems that the main audience that went to see it were people who already agreed with it or wanted to see just how bad it really was. Unless there’s a huge number of churches that have reserved theaters for the second week, I think it’s all downhill from here for Expelled.

Perhaps the creationists aren’t the master communicators they are sometimes made out to be. A bunch of them sunk a fair bit of time and money into a major documentary release, one of the biggest ever for any documentary film, and it fizzled out. Putting Ben Stein in schoolboy clothes may be cute to some (I say leave that to Angus Young), but ultimately he seems to have failed to make an impression. While the “Big Tent” of contemporary Christianity tried to be kind to him, even some of the positive reviews I saw found it difficult to find anything good to say about the film, instead appealing (much like Stein) to the notions of freedom and open discourse on a topic that (to them) has more to do with faith than with scientific evidence.

To put it plainly, I’ve come to the realization that creationism is successful because there is a built-in audience for it, not because creationists are especially effective communicators. The draw of the various kinds of creationism is that you have a group of people saying “We have a new way you can defend your faith! Science proves the Bible, so you don’t need to worry about evolution anymore!” Lots of books and DVDs and other materials are produced, often recycling the same arguments over and over again, but it seems to me that many people who accept creationism (not the “Type 1” Creationists with a capital “C” that are the mouthpieces of the movement) just like to know it’s there. It makes everything easy. The Bible says “God created” and these “upstanding” folks have scientifically proven it, right? It becomes so easy not to think.

This makes it even more important for people who care about science to take a “Top down” and “Bottom up” approach to improving the understanding of science in the country. Better communication through the mass media is important (the “top down” aspect), but even more crucial is the improvement of science education in schools (the “bottom up” aspect). Just because no one is actively trying to get creationism into public schools doesn’t mean that evolution is being taught or even taught effectively, and a change in this area is going to be key if we ever wish to see things change. It is important to reach people who are not sympathetic to evolution, or even have never really had it explained properly to them, and not just gripe amongst ourselves about how bad things have gotten. Perhaps this sounds a little evangelical, but I think there are many people who are fascinated by nature but don’t know what to do with a debate they see as a battle between strict religious fundamentalism and atheism. It’s a false dichotomy, but it seems to be a very prevalent perception of the state of things.

In the end, I don’t think Expelled is especially relevant to the creationism v. evolution argument occurring in the U.S. right now. The people who already agreed with the message liked it, the people who saw it for what it was hated it, but most people are probably going to be ambivalent (or even oblivious) to it. The same problems involving science communication and science education remain, as does the question of “What are we prepared to do about it?”


  1. #1 Peter Mc
    April 21, 2008

    Got some thoughts, but later and probably by email. Got a synopsis to finish and get in the post with three chapters to an agent.

  2. #2 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    April 21, 2008

    To put it plainly, I’ve come to the realization that creationism is successful because there is a built-in audience for it, not because creationists are especially effective communicators.

    That is probably the best sentence I have yet read on the reason that Creationism still has legs in the 21st century.

    Excellent post, yet again, Brian.

  3. #3 J-Dog
    April 21, 2008

    You make some good points – I hope you’re right.

  4. #4 IanR
    April 21, 2008

    I agree with Mike – I think you really hit the nail on the head.

  5. #5 df
    April 21, 2008

    It’s interesting that you talked about people being “reached”…which is evangelical completely. Which is scary to tell you the truth…that statement only lends more credence to other side for me. I feel like a generation has been indoctrinated and hasn’t been taught to use there brain. Critical thinking skills are atrocious in public schools. We tell kids what we want them to believe. Evolutionist just happen to have the upper hand now in indoctrinating.

  6. #6 Blake Stacey
    April 21, 2008

    A bit of poking around the Web suggests that the average cost of a single release print is $1500 (that might be a little on the low side, actually). The movie theater’s cut from ticket sales is, I’ve read, about 50%, although it may be lower on the first few nights. Looks like they spent between $1.5 and $2 million just making the prints to be shown in theaters — a sizable fraction, if not the entirety, of their take so far.

  7. #7 ypdave
    April 21, 2008

    The same statements could be made about Michael Moore’s movies. The only crowd that turned out were people that already agreed with his presuppositions. This genre of movie is inherently biased and does have an agenda…otherwise why would the movie be made. It is what it is! Movies like this may not present great arguments, scientificully but perhaps the attention they get can stimulate some honest, intellectual dialogue…however I doubt it. It seems it has only become an emotional debate…each side reacting against the other and even more passionately defending their ground…and still not using their brains! Sad

  8. #8 Jeff Hebert
    April 21, 2008

    A commenter at Ed’s place said:

    [A] Tupac Shakur documentary a few years ago beat Expelled’s opening weekend by 1.5 million in 250 fewer theaters. I dropped the Top 100 documentaries page from Box Office Mojo into Excel to look at the per theater take and that really shows how poorly they’ve done. Only four of the top 100 did worse per theater than Expelled. Super Size Me made $12,601 per theater compared to Expelled’s $2,997.

    It is one of the few pieces of actual data I have found in this latest ScienceBlogs kerfluffle.

  9. #9 Nemo
    April 21, 2008

    I think we ought to measure success by their own declared standard — they said a $12-$15 million opening weekend would be a success. They made $3.1 million. Epic fail.

    Now, you have to wonder why they set the bar so high for themselves. I can only suppose it’s because, as we already know, they’re just not on speaking terms with reality.

    Granted, it’s still a much bigger opening than I’d have liked to see.

  10. #10 Kristine
    April 21, 2008

    To put it plainly, I’ve come to the realization that creationism is successful because there is a built-in audience for it, not because creationists are especially effective communicators.

    Bingo. Well done.

  11. #11 Scandinavian
    April 21, 2008

    And frankly – the Moore documentaries also made headway in the CIVILIZED part of the world, something Expelled is guaranteed not to do. There isn’t really an audience for Intelligent Design in Europe. As for myself, I had barely even heard of intelligent design or the science wars before I moved to the US.

  12. #12 Jim Lippard
    April 21, 2008

    It didn’t make $958,000 on Sunday, that was based on the $3.1 million projection. It actually made only $775,000 on Sunday, and the actual weekend total was $2,970,848 (per-theater average of $2,824). The take dropped 17.8% from Friday to Saturday and a further 21.7% from Saturday to Sunday. Sunday’s per-theater take was $737.

    It was ranked #8 on Friday, #9 on Saturday, and #10 for the weekend.

  13. #13 Paul
    April 22, 2008

    Perhaps this sounds a little evangelical, but I think there are many people who are fascinated by nature but don’t know what to do with a debate they see as a battle between strict religious fundamentalism and atheism. It’s a false dichotomy, but it seems to be a very prevalent perception of the state of things.

    That’s the problem right there. The loudest voices on the religious side are the creationists, and the loudest voices on the evolution side aren’t the scientists, but the “anyone with any faith is a retarded moron who should not only be ignored but ridiculed” athiests.

    The focal point has ceased to be about the science, but about the faith, and that’s dangerous. The majority are moderate and religious, you can’t forget that. Belittle them before you mention evolution, and you lose them. Allow them to associate evolution with athiesm, by allowing the leading proponents to be evangelical athiests, and you become exactly what scientists are being portrayed as by the fundamentalists.

    I am religious. I have faith in a god.

    I also know that evolution is 100% verifiable, testable, and proven. It is a fact. But I can only be told that I’m an idiot and that I’m not worth listening to for so long before I simply stop trying to argue with Creationists why they are wrong and just walk away.

    As you say, it is a false dichotomy. Evolution happens whether you believe in a god or you don’t. The process doesn’t change. It’s like two people disputing how an internal combustion engine works because they can’t decide what colour the car is.

    ID wants the public to believe that scientists view them as stupid for even considering that there might be a god. The best defence against that is not to be dragged into the religious debate. Scientists think that the public are intelligent enough to understand science. It is the fundamentalists who think the public are stupid enough to be fooled by pseudo-science.

    As for the film… I wonder if Ben Stein’s monotone has contributed to its failure!

  14. #14 ypdave
    April 23, 2008

    Paul wrote: “I also know that evolution is 100% verifiable, testable, and proven”. I ‘m shocked at this statement 99% of scientist wouldn’t even claim 100% verification! A cursory reading on the subject of Evolution theory by any honest scientist will reveal major “holes” in the theory. It’s amazing that those that are “religious” are stereotyped as ignorant, and uncivilized!
    Also, Michael Moore’s movies are as equally biased, ignorant, and not well researched…anyone out there get that…or are you too blind to be objective?

  15. #15 Andreas Johansson
    April 23, 2008

    Is it known what Expelled cost to produce and market?

  16. #16 Laelaps
    April 23, 2008

    Andreas; I am not sure what the total cost of making and marketing Expelled was, although it seems that they dumped a lot of money into trying to get the word out (advertising, free pre-screenings, etc.). If I find out I will let you know.

    ypdave; Do you have any evidence to back up your statement, or just incredulity? What Paul is referring to (I think) is the idea that evolution is fact and theory. That evolution occurred (i.e. that over billions of years life has changed from one generation to another, resulting in the diversity and unity of life as we know it) is a fact. There’s no way around it, and even creationists like Michael Behe have realized that they cannot deny common ancestry.

    The theory part has been much more controversial. After Darwin published his book not everyone agreed, and it wasn’t until the mid-20th century when scientists from a variety of disciplines like genetics, paleontology, botany, etc. took all the available evidence and tried to figure out how evolution happens (the theory aspect of evolution). It was clear that Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection really was the most important, and it stays with us. There are other theories like sexual selection and kin selection that are important as well, but the theory aspect is always being reviewed, debated, and revised as necessary. I would recommend looking at some of the resources I listed here, and I covered this same issue myself some time ago.

    As for Michael Moore, no one is arguing on the merits of his films. I’ve only seen Bowling for Columbine and thought it was ok, but I’m just not particularly interested in his brand of documentary-making. The only thing that was relevant here was the success of his films in terms of the money they made in theaters, and I said nothing of whether his films were good or not.

  17. #17 ypdave
    April 23, 2008

    Laelaps: I could ask you the same question, “facts or incredulity?” And this is the heart of the debate…9 I do understand there are aspects of evolution that are evident…but the limits they are taken to are pretty absurd and still as yet unproved. I’ll just give you one argument of which I’m sure you are familiar. The fossil record is the only tangible, physical record for proof of evolution. Yet there is not 1 transitional fossil record. Wouldn’t the earth be littered with them? MMM…is this not a little disturbing…I guess we’ll have to rely on “faith” to believe in this theory!

  18. #18 Laelaps
    April 23, 2008

    Dave; You’re incorrect on a number of points. The fossil record is not the only resource available in determining that evolution has occurred. Genetic and developmental studies overwhelmingly support evolution, and data from such areas often help support what we observe in the fossil record. Case in point; there are two “types” of whales alive today, baleen whales and toothed whales. In the past they shared a toothed common ancestor, but when baleen whales got their baleen has been a big question. A recent study found that baleen evolved while whales still had teeth, the teeth ultimately being lost. Baleen whales even still have genes that code for making teeth, but they are “fossil genes,” no longer functional and being further broken up by mutations. I wrote about this research in detail here.

    Likewise, to claim that there are “no transitional” forms is absurd. The fossil record is full of them, and any species that gave rise to another can be considered a transitional form. An individual does not evolve during their lifetime, but if they leave descendants and those descendants do likewise and on and on and on, you have an entire string of transitional forms. I suspect you’ve been taken in by the old canard that there should be some bizarre looking creature with the front half of a cow and the back half of a whale or something similar, but that’s a straw man argument at best.

    Take the evolution of our own species, for example. The fact that we evolved from apes is abundantly clear in the fossil record; it is impossible (and intellectually dishonest) to say that everything else is just an ape and cast it aside. Was Homo erectus just an ape? Were Neanderthals? Creationists have bent over backwards to try and push hominids into boxes marked “ape” or “aberrant human,” but the actual facts gathered over the past 150 years don’t allow for this. Genetic data (i.e. that we share over 95% of our DNA with chimpanzees) bolsters what the fossil record has already shown, and it’s only possible to ignore these facts if you have already made up your mind that they can’t be true.

  19. #19 Hai~Ren
    April 23, 2008

    Nope. No such things as transitional fossils. It’s all a big atheist scientist hoax.

    P.S. I’m really hoping this passes the spam filters.

    As an aside, I’m quite pleased that this movie hasn’t appeared in Singapore at all. We already have enough silly creationist nonsense being spread around by people with zero understanding of evolution and zero understanding of basic biology, and enough stupidity going around, without Ben Stein and co. to fan the flames.

  20. #20 ypdave
    April 23, 2008

    Interesting information. Makes me realize how much more I need to read. “Its only possible to ignore these facts if you have already made up your mind that they can’t be true”…right back at ya…I think both sides of the fence can tend not to be objective and view things out of presuppostions.

  21. #21 Scott Hartman
    April 24, 2008

    I’m sorry Dave, as I don’t mean for this to be as offensive as I’m sure it will read, but you are exhibiting all of the rhetorical hallmarks of a creationist who hasn’t even attempted to review the scientific literature (or even some up to date popular books on science). It’s beyond ludicrous to claim there aren’t transitional fossil series, let alone claim “there is not 1 transitional fossil record.”

    The dinosaur-bird transition has over 4-dozen well documents species that inform us how birds evolved from dinosaurs ( for a quick visual summary of a fraction of them) including feathered non-bird dinosaurs galore. The fossil record is repleat with transitional series, and only a complete lack of knowledge of the data could let someone say otherwise.

  22. #22 akarmenia1
    May 6, 2008

    Hey Brian, have you checked your own link about the revenues of the movie? It’s now up to the #6 grossing political documentary, and about to overtake the #5 spot. Oh, and by the way, it aired in almost half as many theaters as Farenheit 9/11. And one more thing – it BY FAR has the largest opening revenues among all the movies on your list. I know you “science” bloggers love to suppress those that go against your own fanatical beliefs, but you are scewing the facts. Let’s have some academic honesty.

  23. #23 Laelaps
    May 6, 2008

    Arkarmenia – Look at the date; I posted this about the opening weekend of Expelled and even said in the post that whether you consider it a “success” or “failure” depends on any number of factors (some of which, like costs of marketing and distribution) I’m not privy to. You might want to try actually reading the post before accusing me of dishonesty.

    You are defining success as the biggest opening and top spots as far as political documentaries go over the short term, which overlooks the aim of the film itself (to get people to rally around the “expelled” and try to get creationism into the classroom). As I already said, that’s one measure of success, but it’s pretty narrow and seems designed to show the film in the best possible light.

    So far, Expelled seems to be of little importance. Whether it is going to have any significance at all is something that only time will tell.

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