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How’d it Go, Ben?

So, after all the hype and hoopla, how did Ben Stein’s propoganda snuff-film, ‘Expelled’ do at the box office?  Keep in mind the following little points:

  • ‘Expelled opened on an unprecendented 1.052 screens, the most ever for a documentary
  • It was intensely covered by the press beforehand, given especially favorable time on the ‘fair and balanced’ Fox News
  • The filmmakers hired no fewer than four separate PR firms to promote it, and developed an extensive web presence, ialong with information kits and special treatment for groups from schools and churches.
  • As we know from the ads that kept popping up on the SGU website, they flooded the internet with advertising
  • They offered a random prize drawing to school groups that collected and turned in their ticket stubs, and in the first couple of weeks after the ‘film’ opened, they offered to pay between $5 and $10 per ticket stub to these groups.

So here are the results:  The film opened in the above mentioned 1,052 screens and rang up $2.7 million in the first weekend.  The 2nd weekend the total dropped to $1.3 million, and then to $678,000 and $328,000 in the 3rd and 4th weeks.  Altogether, as of the end of May, 2008, ‘Expelled’ grossed about $7.6 million.

The filmmakers will be quick to mention that this makes ‘Expelled’ the 12th highest grossing documentary since 1982 – though with numbers not adjusted for inflation (to be fair adjusting for inflation probably only drops it one place, to 13th).  Their $2.9 million opening weekend seemed fairly strong on the face of it, but considering the number of theaters, the heavy promotion, and the financial give-backs to schools, this is actually pathetic. 

Turns out you couldn’t even pay people to sit through this drivel, and the hoped-for groundswell of church and school groups and tie-ins never materialized.  I think we can count this as a big win for the good guys.

Oh, and a nod to our northern friends:  The movie opened in Canada on June 27th – I was trying to excerpt this, but the whole paragraph is so good that I’ll shamelessly steal from wikipedia:

The movie opened in Canada on June 27, 2008 at 36 theaters[125] and grossed $24,374 with a premier at 20th closely behind Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic, a Hindi language film.[126] The movie was given a score of 0 and called Expelled “an appallingly unscrupulous example of hack propaganda” by the The Globe & Mail.[127] It was also criticized by Vue Weekly as “anti-science propaganda masquerading as a Michael Moore-ish fool’s journey, full of disingenuous ploys, cheap tricks, and outright mendacity.”[128] Notably in an interview promoting the film, Vancouver Sun writer Peter McKnight asked for Stein to comment on the Anti-Defamation League‘s statement condemning the use of the Holocaust to further an anti-evolution agenda, to which Stein replied, “It’s none of their fucking business.”[55] On the movie, the reviewer wrote, “In effect, then, the producers are doing precisely what the Nazis did: Distorting Darwin’s writing in order to justify their beliefs.”[55]

(I’ve left wikipedia’s references in, because hey, why not?)  You go, Canada.

17 comments to How’d it Go, Ben?

  • durnett

    We’ve received word from our Vivendi Entertainment sales rep that they are bringing Expelled: No Intelligence to DVD on October 21. Their promotional plans include
    -National Network Television Media Campaign
    -Grassroots Christian Outreach Campaign
    -Print Campaign in National Christian
    Newspapers and Magazines
    -National Coverage on Television Talk Shows
    and Radio Talk Shows
    -Nationwide and cross-denominational
    religious organizational support

  • It only lasted 2 weeks in the local theatre (Ottawa, Ontario), and I assume 2 weeks is the minimum amount of time the theatre had to hold on to it.
    The 2nd weekend’s earnings are unknown to me since it didn’t even make the top 20 list.

  • That movie ended up being completely off my radar for the Canadian release.

    I can’t get the total Canadian numbers for it because boxofficemojo.com lumps Canada in under “domestic” grosses, but it stops as of May 29.

    We don’t play that shit up here.

  • PD

    Jon

    I’d like to agree with you that it was a failure, but alas, I can’t. Let’s suppose that we created some kind of skeptics’ documentary, and we put the same amount of effort and money in publicity, advertising, etc. Do you think we’d get anywhere near those numbers? I think not. (Please prove me wrong with a good example.) By any means used to measure the success of a documentary (excluding Canada, of course), I would have to say that this piece of crap did quite well (although ironically, in the long run, I think it may have caused irreparable harm to whatever stature Ben Stein may have enjoyed in the past). Even though I don’t like it, I think we have to be fair here: the film was mildly profitable (I’m sure they’ll ring up even more sales with the DVD), which is clear evidence that — as Jay mentioned on a recent podcast — we skeptics are forever waging an uphill battle. At least we’re the ones fighting the good fight.

  • Jon Blumenfeld

    No way this movie was profitable. $3.5 million to make. Just making 1052 copies had to be damned expensive, let alone distributing, advertising, promotional give-backs, etc… – but then, profit was never the goal.

    This film was promoted and advertised like a mainstream film, and by that measure it tanked utterly.

    If the point was to change the conversation, or to convert the fence-sitters to anti-evolution position, they also failed. They barely got the choir to listen to their sermon, let alone the congregation. And I agree that Ben Stein’s reputation is shot after this.

    I would have said that their exaggerations and deceptions left a bad taste in people’s mouths, but considering how few actually bit, I don’t think that’s true. This thing is just going to fade into the background, and after an initial flurry I’m sure you’ll be able to get all the free copies of the DVD you want.

  • Sporkyy

    Someone (the Skeptical Rogues?) needs to do a funny, witty, science filled RiffTrax-style commentary on Expelled. Instead of “Expelled:”Exposed” you would have “Expelled: Corrected”. Such a commentary is basically the only way I think I could be interested enough to watch that movie. (That’s the only way I was able to watch Eragon.)

  • tk42

    Jon, I think you’re missing the forest for the trees. I’m worried that Expelled was in fact a net defeat for us.

    Expelled doesn’t need to make money to be a success on its own terms. It doesn’t even need to sell tickets to be a success. In fact, given how terrible it apparently was, it was probably MORE successful given that few people actually saw it.

    Imagine you are neither a hardcore skeptic nor a rabid believer. You didn’t see the movie and you didn’t read blogs that mocked it. All you know is “I saw a bunch of internet ads and Comedy Central commercials about Ben Stein’s movie criticizing Darwinists for being closed-minded. There seems to be a legitimate debate going on.” Public perception of genuine controversy is a defeat for our side!

    The enemies of science have again shown themselves to be masters of PR, while the skeptics gloat over box office sales and the subtle irony about the treatment of an obscure biology professor. (“obscure” in terms of pop culture visibility, which is what really matters here) It’s like a presidential election: it doesn’t matter what the other party’s base thinks of you; it matters what those “undecided” ( = uninformed) voters perceive!

  • Jon Blumenfeld

    tk42,

    I don’t think so. I think the net effect on public perception is minimal. THAT’s the point of the poor ticket sales. I think the net result is turning out to be “Didn’t Ben Stein make some movie where he wore a stupid pair of shorts and bought a zillion advertisements on the net? I wonder what that was all about…”

    Bottom line is that he doesn’t seem to have done a very good job reaching his own base, let alone the undecideds. I think this has been a net PR gift to OUR base, because in the end even creationists just weren’t that interested.

  • wastrel

    As we know from the ads that kept popping up on the SGU website, they flooded the internet with advertising

    ZOMG, there were Expelled ads on the SGU homepage?

  • “a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.”

    Describes it well I think. Well said William.

  • Belgarath

    Jon,

    I’d be very very appreciative if you revisit this topic after several months of DVD sales. Isn’t that where most movies make their money?

    I suspect that the sales will be fairly low too, but I’m still curios to see what happens.

  • Dempkovitch

    Check your facts, Jon. Try it, just once.

    Point One: ‘Expelled opened on an unprecendented [sic] 1.052 screens, the most ever for a documentary. (WRONG!)

    http://www.boxofficemojo.com/genres/chart/?id=documentary.htm

    You’ll see that Expelled has grossed $7,614,754 (so far), and opened in 1,052 theaters.

    Fahrenheit 9/11 opened in 2,011 theaters.
    March of the Penguins opened in 2,506 theaters.
    Sicko opened in 1,117 theaters.

    Point Two: It was intensely covered by the press beforehand, given especially favorable time on the ‘fair and balanced’ Fox News. (SEMI-WRONG!)

    “Roger Friedman of FOX News writes that “Expelled is a sloppy, all-over-the-place, poorly made (and not just a little boring) ‘exposé’ of the scientific community” and echoes Patterson’s concerns about Stein’s career direction, stating that he “is either completely nuts or so avaricious that he’s abandoned all good sense to make a buck” and “like some other celebrities, [he] finally has shown his true colors and they aren’t so pretty.” Friedman criticizes the film’s exploitation of the Holocaust, “hoping someone will latch onto an anti-Semitism theme here” but that it is “such a warped premise that no one’s biting”, and Stein’s involvement, as a Jew, is “so distasteful you wonder what in — sorry — God’s name — he was thinking when he got into this”. Ultimately he concludes that “It will come and go without much fanfare” and that were the film to be shown in his area he’d “boycott the filmmakers for thinking of me as this gullible and unsophisticated.”[13]”

    (I’ve left wikipedia’s references in, because hey, why not?)

  • Jon Blumenfeld

    Gosh, Dempkovitch, that was pretty tough on me. Let’s go to boxofficemojo, shall we? Oh, look, ‘Farenheit’ opened in 868 theaters, sicko technically in just 1, and March of the Penguins in just 4. They have two columns, one on total screens and one on openings. I did say “openings” didn’t I? Let’s check. yes, I did.

    As to point two, okay, I’ll concede the Friedman criticism, I missed that. But Stein was interviewed on Fox News TV shows several times, especially including the O’Reilly factor, and was given extremely favorable treatment.

    So I’ll change your “WRONG” to “RIGHT” and stick with your “SEMI-WRONG.” Wow, those are some pretty egregious semi-non-errors, and they really invalidate my point. Good detective work.

    But let me ask, why do you have such a bug up your ass about this? ‘Check your facts, Jon. Try it, just once.’ What, did I run over your puppy or something? What the hell?

  • Dempkovitch

    I accept your apology.

  • Nice article, Jon. I have to agree that this film was just not successful, no matter how people try to paint it. Success is measured in dollars and cents, and this film, if anything, just broke even. Remember folks, the 7 million figure is gross theater receipts. Half of that goes to pay the theater owners. The remaining 3.5 mil needs to pay for production and that elaborate ad campaign. True, there is still the DVD release, but best guesses are that the total cost of this film was close on 10 million… that’s a lot of ground to cover in DVD sales.

    Even for those arguing that it furthered the movement in public perception, sorry but I don’t think so. Again, most people probably don’t know it exists despite the ad campaign. And for those that remember it, the film is almost universally considered a joke. The critical reception was horrible, and I think if you asked most people that recall the film’s release, most would acknowledge that it was a silly propaganda piece.

  • medicated

    Expelled was indeed a dud. What worries me is that the next attempt by the evolution denial movement will be much better thought out and much less heavy handed.

    Perhaps they’ll even manage to go so far as to embed their ideas in a fictional story, knowing that the audience for documentaries is rather limited no matter how good the film.

  • It’ll be interesting to see if Religulous does better– I asked the following to the Predictify crowd:

    “Which will earn more money in US movie theaters in 2008: Expelled, the pro-Intelligent-Design movie with Ben Stein, or Religulous, the anti-religion movie with Bill Maher?”
    See http://tinyurl.com/5ckclk for results.

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