Shifting Baselines

After doing podcasts with Genie Scott, PZ Myers, and Richard Dawkins regarding the movie, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” Skepticality decided to bring back Randy Olson (they did a first podcast with him last October) to let him have the last word on the debut of “Expelled.” In his discussion he goes through six ways in which he feels the evolution crowd played into the hands of the producers of “Expelled,” and unintentionally helped them promote the movie.

You can hear it here.

For being interviewed in the movie, Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Shermer wins a souvenir “Expelled” promotional kit!


  1. #1 Ameenah Kaplan
    May 15, 2008


    i just heard you for the second time on skepticality and was again so impressed and inspired. i’ve made my living in the arts for most of my life and a year and a half ago realized i was an atheist. my own work in the theater has always been themed around thinking for oneself and striking out on one’s own. but it wasn’t until i realized atheism that my “mission” became clear. when i heard your first interview with swoopy, i said, this guy has it right. as someone who’s spent her whole life surrounded by artists who believe in everything but rationality, to this community, the scientists do come off just as you say. my first foray into the skeptical community was through a podcast. the hosts, though obviously intelligent, were condescending and dismissive of anyone who was a “believer”. while i obviously agree with their larger point of view, the way in which they belittled anyone who “still believed in all that crazy shit” was a little too much for me. i didn’t grow up around scientists. i don’t work with scientists, and though they are the keepers of the truth, their world seemed like something i couldn’t belong to. we were just too different socially, it seemed. as an artist, i’ve been in search of a way in which to spread skepticism and rational thinking to our community. let me put it to you this way, as actors, we use all the tools that science says are not reliable in order to achieve our goals–faith, emotions, memory, etc. this has led to a crossover with people’s real lives. they are simply unable to reactivate their disbelief when they exit the stage. i guess, we are a little superstitious like athletes. if meditation worked just before the show, why wouldn’t it work in real life? this has always driven me crazy. for me, the fantasy has always begun and ended at the door of the theater.

    i live in hollywood and work as an actress, musician, dancer, choreographer, and director. i don’t have a day job. i understand this business. i’m a black girl from the south who grew up in a jewish household! nobody understands the way the machine of hollywood works better than those of us struggling to carve out a niche in a business that is deliberately and apologetically racist, sexist, classist, you name it. hollywood is its own animal, with its own rules and you’re right, the scientific community doesn’t get it at all! they have the naive belief that truth will win in the end. they’re wrong. i know i’m a better actress than many of these beautiful, homogeneous starlets. but will i ever get to enjoy the fruits of hollywood the way they do?–hell no! this is a business run by entrepreneurs who are living vicariously through artists. they have wedged themselves between artists and their work in the form of agents, managers, casting directors, and producers! and as business people, their concern is not art but making the maximum amount of profit with the least amount of effort–and being photographed at the after party with celebrity x. that is why we see change happen so slowly. that is why the same type of actor continues to book all the best parts despite the fact of diversity in the country. this is a business that preys on and thrives off of people’s ignorance; constantly playing to the lowest common denominator. which is usually sex.

    i want to help! so in january, after working professionally as an actor since the age of 15, i’ll return to film school so that i can contribute to the scientific, rational education of the masses.

    YOU ARE RIGHT ON TARGET!!! if we are to realize the rational and united humanity that we envision for the future, we need media savvy, sexy people delivering powerful, engaging and cogent messages.

    thank you again randy. you continue to inspire and enlighten me. we are out there. we are supporting you. we are contributing!

  2. #2 Paul W.
    May 15, 2008


    First let me say I agree with a lot of what you have to say.

    I agree that the “success” of Expelled!, in one sense, is disturbing. It’s disturbing that these people can spend millions and millions to get a million people to see a load of dishonest antiscience.

    I agree that it would be good if we had a major well-oiled publicity machine for our side.

    I agree that it was a mistake for PZ and Dawkins to get suckered into doing the interviews, and if PZ really would have done it anyway, that’s probably bad strategy.

    I also agree that a lot of Pharyngula commenters were naive about the copyright issues. (And I was maybe the first to say so there.)

    On the other hand…

    It seems to me that the movie is a box office failure in a very real and important sense. It’s only doing a fraction of what the producers expected, and a small fraction of what the hoped. That doesn’t undo the very real damage, but it doesn’t give them the kind of boost they wanted, funding more movies, encouraging other loons to do likewise. It’s not the kind of financial or popular success it could have been.

    Expelled did 3 million its opening weekend, but what would you expect from a movie with millions of dollars worth of ads everywhere, a name star, a 1000+ screen opening, etc.?

    It seems to me that the damage is about as slight as we could have dared hope.

    Expelled’s popularity has fallen exponentially with a half-life of about a week. $4 million gross the first full week, 2 million the second, 1 the third, and it’s set to do less than 1/2 M this week. It’s also screens theaters faster than exponentially—it’s set to drop by 48 percent, to 209 theaters, going into week 5.

    At this exponential decay rate, it can’t break 8 million gross and will only net a few million at the box office, even if it runs forever. And given the rate it’s losing theaters, it won’t run much longer at all.

    It could have been a lot worse. Correct me if I’m wrong—and please, explain—but this movie will lose millions. Doesn’t that matter at all? Surely that will affect the scope of “their” ambitions at least a little?

    I also think that the criticial panning does matter. For such a “big” movie in terms of budget and opening screens, it’s doing badly.

    Presumably the critical drubbing has something to do with that, and is something we’re not stupid to be happy about it. I’d guess that the critical consensus kept lots of people away—in particular, most “wobbly middle,” reachable folks who weren’t intellectual goners going in.

    It seems reasonable to guess that the negative reviews helped limit the damage. The movie reached a million of “them” and may help rally their troops, but it did not reach many of the other people they wanted to get on board.

    It also seems reasonable to guess that PZ and Dawkins exposing the producers’ sleaziness had something to do with that. Presumably at least some reviewers were aware of the buzz about the Expellers’ sleaze, and that helped clue them in to the depths of suckiness embodied by the movie.

    That seems to me a a good use of their limited, relatively elite audience. The vast majority of potential Expelled viewers don’t read PZ or Dawkins on the internet, but they can speak to elites—including some movie reviewers—who in turn do speak to a mass audience.

    Maybe that effect is negligible; I don’t know. Do you, really?

    You seem to want it both ways; PZ’s and Dawkin’s release-time expose was Very Bad because it just increased publicity for Expelled among the masses. On the other hand, that sort of thing can’t do any good because all that matters is Expelled’s professional production and ads everywhere; blogs don’t matter.

    Pardon me if I don’t just take your word export word for it. You may well be basically right, but I’d like to know how you estimate the effect of reviews on attendance, and the effect of blog buzz on reviews.

    I respect your status as a movie biz guy, but if I’m wrong, I’d be interested in understanding how I’m wrong.
    If you want clueless science nerds to listen to you, it really helps if you show your work.

  3. #3 Randy Olson
    May 15, 2008

    It’s kind of hard to make sense of your last three paragraphs — things like “word export word”? and “release-time expose”?

    But overall, there is no real science to assessing the success of a movie. Probably the best thing is to simply look at what the experts had to say, as I mentioned in the podcast — which is that none of the opening weekend reviews called the movie disappointing or a flop. Most of them did use that language for Morgan Spurlock’s mess that weekend.

    So there you have it. In Hollywood the opening box office is the be-all-and-end-all for a movie. Everything downstream for the movie gets calculated based upon how well the movie “opened.” Yes, the “legs” thing does become a secondary factor, but mostly for the huge movies.

    As I said in answer to your other comment — these guys did well enough, let’s move on. Let’s focus on the more positive presentation of evolution. Something that high school kids can look at and say, “okay, that’s pretty cool.” Rants and insultfests don’t fit into that category.

  4. #4 Paul W.
    May 19, 2008

    It’s kind of hard to make sense of your last three paragraphs — things like “word export word”? and “release-time expose”?

    Sorry for the typo & inclarity. “word export word” should have been “expert word.” “Release-time expose” means expose (the noun, ideally with an accent over the final e) around the time of the movie’s release.

  5. #5 Paul W.
    May 21, 2008

    An interesting plot (via a comment by Kim at Panda’s thumb) shows the take of the top 12 political documentaries over time:

    The lonely, more steeply-declining plot at the bottom is Expelled at #12.

    Even on a log-linear plot, Expelled is qualitatively different from the top 11. On a linear scale, it would be dramatically different.

    Expelled! may be a “success”, but it’s not quite the kind of success suggested by saying that it was (very briefly) one of the top 10 political documentaries in terms of opening gross. It’s a qualitatively different thing.

    Compared to the top 10 movies, Expelled’s gross is strikingly lower and declining more steeply.

    That makes me wonder if the usual formula for predicting DVD sales from opening weekend gross may not apply to Expelled—unless it’s somehow a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Or maybe that’s just what you imply when you say that “legs” is only significant for “big movies.” Expelled may be a success, but it’s not a “big movie” success?

  6. #6 Paul W.
    May 21, 2008

    Ooops… I should have said that the plot is the per-screen take for the top 12 political documentaries.

    Expelled has lost a big fraction of per-screen revenues every week despite losing a big fraction of its screens every week—presumably the less profitable ones.

    Is this steep decline typical of non-big movies? Do most movies lack legs to this extent, and is that already factored into the usual formula for projecting DVD revenues?

  7. #7 Bad
    May 23, 2008

    I still don’t see how the film was a success in any way that we care about. There is no evidence that it accomplished what it set out to do: spark off a powerful new anti-evolutionary movement across the nation. The most visible things connected to the film politically were the latest round of “academic freedom” bills, but these began prior to the movie coming onto the scene, and most have all but fizzled for this political season. There were no en masse revolts in the schools (perhaps in part because school was basically over by the time the film came out). No one seems to have taken up Stein’s challenge, and the Yoko lawsuit seems to have crippled things even more.

    As for how “big” it opened: it was a film that spent millions and millions more on promotion: far more than most documentaries get, and sold itself to open wider than most documentaries can ever afford to or convince theaters to allow them. Given all that, I’m at a loss to understand how you think that it could have had a _smaller_ audience than it did, no matter how meek and quiet PZ and Dawkins were.

    And after all that promotion, it’s not even clear whether it will make a dime. Again, it’s not surprising that, given how much money they spent and how many theaters they could afford to open in, that it had a decent opening weekend. But it was far far below the filmmakers expectations, and as far as anyone can tell, it went nowhere.

    If you have any evidence that the film did more than preach to an existing choir, then I might be more moved and worried. But right now, “Dodos” isn’t what comes to mind when I listen to your podcast: it’s Chicken Little.

  8. #8 Kim G
    May 29, 2008

    Great interview Randy. As an occasional reader of PZ’s blog and a regular listener of Skepticality, I appreciate a level headed approach to these topics. Thanks for doing what you do. I put you in the same camp as Eugenie Scott and Michael Schermer in that you’re not as easily rattled as Dawkins and PZ. Keep up the awesome work!

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