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 rottentomatoes.com. (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 rottentomatoes.com), 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?”