Expelled's Box Office Success Bucks Industry Trend

The box-office troubles of docs such as "Bigger, Faster, Stronger" is in contrast to Expelled's impact.

The LA Times runs a story this week on the downturn in box office fortunes for the documentary film genre. The inability of well crafted docs about front burner issues such as Iraq or steroids to reach audiences and to catalyze policy debate makes the impact of Expelled (see column) that much more troubling and suprising.

As the LA Times reports:

Critically acclaimed films about provocative subjects struggle to make money all the time, but rarely have so many lauded documentaries consistently failed to connect at the box office. The recent nonfiction returns have been so bleak that several distributors are growing wary about taking on such highbrow works, an alarming development in a pop culture universe already dominated by "American Idol," James Frey and US Weekly.

"It's unlike anything I've seen before," says Michael Barker, whose Sony Pictures Classics has released the documentary duds "Standard Operating Procedure," "Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains" and "My Kid Could Paint That," none of which grossed more than $250,000 theatrically. "Unless you have movie stars like Michael Moore or Al Gore associated with your film, you can't sell tickets."

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By Matthew Platte (not verified) on 19 Jun 2008 #permalink

Um, Netflix?
There are only three reasons anyone would spend 15 bucks to see a documentary in the theater: it's an unusually visual example, like Winged Migration; your pastor orders you to do so and you are the type of person who likes to follow orders (Expelled); or it's August and you don't have air conditioning.
Otherwise--since footage of Morgan Spurlock talking doesn't benefit from a big screen the way Iron Man does--normal people watch documentaries at home, either on DVD or on one of the many cable channels that feature long- or short-form documentary programming, such as IFC or The History Channel. Really, I don't see what's so complicated.

I'm willing to bet that none of these documentaries had the financial backing that Expelled did. It will be interesting to see if it even made money on its theater run - let's compare the net profits or losses.


When movie prices are $8 - 10 a ticket plus a ridiculous amount on gas and then what you eat people are picky what movies they see now

It seems that any discussion comparing the success of Expelled to these other films would have to mention the amount of marketing dollars behind them. I feel like I might have seen ads for Standard Operating Procedure - but not like the blitz behind Expelled. The amount spent on advertising for Expelled certainly helped it gross more dollars than these other films. Right?

The success of EXPELLED? After a couple of months in release it is more than 4 million dollars short of what THE PRODUCERS said they would consider a successful OPENING WEEKEND.

How is that a success? It is a dismal failure by the producers' own criteria.

SEED has got a bunch of otherwise smart people on here - why do we have to keep explaining this?

I agree - when a person rents a documentary, then he/she can share it with family and discuss it while it's playing. Try discussing a movie in the theater, see how long it takes for them to kick you out!

I'm with cg. Your discussion is incomplete without estimates of how much was spent on marketing these films. I saw 3 ads for expelled. I have seen none at all for any of the others. I saw expelled was playing in one cinema in my area. I have not seen any of the others playing in my area.

I still fail to see the point of your posts in which you talk about the box-office success of this movie. I think that it is irrelevant and off the track, compared to the other point you make which is on target. The movie has a different effect in that it is used not to persuade the public but the legislatures who think it is about damned time to get some Academic Freedom in the classrooms.

Those are the people who are seeing it in private screenings, and those are the people who get incensed by its (false) image that evolution is "untouchable" in the schools.

The success of EXPELLED? After a couple of months in release it is more than 4 million dollars short of what THE PRODUCERS said they would consider a successful OPENING WEEKEND.

How is that a success? It is a dismal failure by the producers' own criteria.

SEED has got a bunch of otherwise smart people on here - why do we have to keep explaining this?

Dog only knows. At a guess, some people have a hard time letting go.

Given the fact that I live in a conservative 'Bible Belt' area, naturally 'Expelled' made the local theaters here.

I think 'Expelled' will do very well, when you count in DVD sales to the religious markets. It's early to gauge its economic success from just box office. If the filmmakers are patient, they ought to do just fine over the longterm. (Kind of like how big Hollywood action movies make most of their money outside of the U.S.)

I've seen estimates that the Christian retail segment alone in the U.S. does about $5 billion a year, and religious people are the main audience for 'Expelled.' Parents of middle school+ age children, and church youth groups would be a natural audience for this film, which I am sure the marketers of 'Expelled' are targeting.

I have no doubts whatsoever that I will be seeing it promoted at the local Christian bookstore, and I am really hoping that no one wants to screen it at our church. It's got a cleverly and entertainingly presented message that resonates with its intended audience.

Expelled was hardly a success. Even with the most screens and the most promotion ever for a documentary -- even with the opening weekend numbers artificially inflated by the producers bribing churches and schools to bus in audiences -- this thing still tanked hard. I doubt it even made back its marketing budget. It's now out of theaters after grossing less than $8 million and with no appeal to an ineternational market (Europeans quite rightly view creationists as nutters on a par with flat earth believers). This thing was a turkey by any rational standard you want to apply. For most of its run, it was selling less than 10 tickets per screening (and that dropped to less than 5 after the first coupl of weeks). That's hardly a runaway success. That's what they call in the business a "real piece of shit."

Not grossing more than $250,000 is not some new trend for documentaries. Making millions is what's new for (select) documentaries. Six of the top ten grossing documentaries were released in the last five years. Eight of the top ten were released in the last ten years.

And Expelled, at number twelve, made less than eight million dollars at the box office.

Documentaries have, in general, never drawn huge crowds.

Expelled was released onto over 1,000 screens. Roger and Me, by comparison, which grossed almost as much (more, if you use constant dollars), was released onto just over 250. (And had a budget of $300,000, less than half of what Expelled spent on marketing, less than 10% of Expelled's budget.) Hoop Dreams, which grossed more, was also released onto just over 250 screens. Mad Hot Ballroom, which grossed more than all three was released onto 200.

Of the top ten documentaries (of which Expelled is not one), only three had as wide a release: Fahrenheit 9/11, March of the Penguins, and Sicko. The least of them (Sicko) still made four times what Expelled made on a similar number of screens. (Excepting those three, I can't find a documentary in the top twenty-five that was released onto more than half as many screens, and which had less than half the budget.)

Documentaries that aren't by Michael Moore don't get the kind of advantages at release that Expelled got (and I think Moore's earned the kind of releases he gets: his movies make money), millions for marketing, over 1,000 screens, and for those advantages, it didn't do all that well. It did all right, I think, I wouldn't call it a failure, but the second highest grossing documentary of 2008 (Expelled is the highest grossing doc of the year), Shine a Light, was released onto 260 screens and grossed nearly as much, and it made four million more world wide.

But back to documentaries in general not making money: If you look at the top grossing documentaries of all time, ever, in the history of America, you merely have to go down to number 77 to drop below the million dollar gross mark.

Now, I don't know how many documentaries have been released onto the big screen, but I would venture a guess that 76 is a pretty tiny percentage of them. But that's how many have grossed over a million.

And by the way, the 76th grossing documentary of all time, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, was released onto 50 screens.

And Standard Operating procedure, which is alleged to be a failure because it didn't break the $250,000 mark? Twenty-one screens. It made an average of about ten grand a screen, three thousand more per screen than Expelled. My Kid Could Paint That never saw more than twenty screens, grossing $11,500 per screen.

Documentaries as a rule don't do big business in theaters, and those that do have almost always gotten a pretty big push.

Expelled got an enormous push for a documentary, had a huge marketing campaign... and it did okay. I don't think the kind of business it did is a reason for celebration or anything. It's not like they threw a party and nobody came... but they seem to have ordered a few kegs too many, and they're gonna be eating left over cheese and crackers for awhile.

Oh, and Bigger, Faster, Stronger has been in release for three weeks, is on only twenty-six screens, and it's made $200,000.

Really great examples for comparison:

Standard Operating Procedure: 21 screens.
My Kid Could Paint That: 20 screens.
Jimmy Carter: 21 screens.
Bigger Faster Stronger: 26 screens.

Expelled: 1,052.

All those movies COMBINED didn't seen 10% as many screens as Expelled.

Matt, will you ever address the issues we raise?

Notice that the article you cite talks about young@heart costing Fox Searchlight 1.5 million to buy, grossing maybe 4 million (it's at 3.5 now), and the rep saying it's "disappointing."

Yet you say Expelled, which cost 3.5 million to make and grossed about 7.6 million, is a "success."

I'm curious what the ad budget was for young@heart; apparently Expelled's was "a multiple" of it's production budget. (7 million? 10?) Plus it got a lot of free advertising on right-wing radio & TV.

Notice that Expelled opened on over 1000 screens (and went downhill fast from there). young@heart started with about an eigth that many and peaked at about about a quarter that many, still managed to do about half the gross of Expelled, and is nonetheless "disappointing."

What gives?

It seems to me that if Expelled is not a flop, it's mainly because they bought an unprecedented huge opening weekend. Wouldn't almost anything on 1000 screens with a big ad budget do about as well?

Seriously, what is the take-home message from this? Is it just that if you don't have $10 or $15 million dollars to make and market your movie, it's not going to reach a big audience?

You and Randy seem to want us to listen to what industry experts say. I'm trying to do that.

The Fox rep's comments about young@heart don't seem to jibe with what we're being told about Expelled.

You and Randy criticize people who disagree with you as being naive about the movie biz, and set yourself up as the experts, at least by the standards of folks around here.

Before I take your opinion very seriously, I'd like you to show that you know more than what Randy read in a couple of reviews that said that the movie had a good opening weekend.

Did those reviewers take into account that the Premise folks bought a good opening weekend?

Can we really expect Expelled to make money?

How do you estimate DVD revenues based on opening box office? Does that formula apply to an unprecedented situation like this one? Why or why not?

If you're not willing to show your work, or cite good sources, a lot of people aren't going to take your "expert" opinions very seriously---especially when your analyses contain really dubious steps, like comparing a movie that opened on 1,000 screens with movies that showed on a quarter that many, or a tenth as many?

You can do better than that. Please try.

Expelled opened on 36 or so screens in Canada, and did about $24K its opening weekend---apparently less than $700 per screen for an entire opening weekend. At an average of three shows a day per screen, that'd be well under $100 per showing, or maybe 8 tickets per showing---and about 2400 total tickets nationwide for the weekend.

Canada has about a quarter of the U.S. population, and 2400 tickets nationwide is a pretty pathetic opening weekend.

That is not what I would expect of a "box office success," except to the extent that buying a big opening weekend is a one-shot strategy, and stinking up the theaters with something like Expelled leads to bad word of mouth as well as very bad reviews.


Maybe Canadian theater owners understand something about the movie biz, and knew better than to open such a stinker of a "box office success" on a bunch of screens.

Of course, Canada is not the U.S., so maybe Expelled will still sell a substantial number of DVD's here.

If anybody actually knows how to estimate DVD sales for such a movie, which opens big and then fades very, very quickly amid terrible reviews, it'd be nice if they spoke up.

If this is "success," it's a very anomalous kind of success.