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"Expelled" Tanks at the Box Office After Big Start
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed had one of the best opening weekends of any documentary, according to data on the Box Office Mojo website (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/). But Ben Stein’s attack on science and evolution faltered fairly quickly and was out of theaters after a brief run of 56 days (eight weeks). The total gross reported by Box Office Mojo was $7 690 545 — almost 40% of it obtained during that highly successful opening weekend.
Expelled opened in 1052 theaters, opening on more theaters than any other documentary on Box Office Mojo’s list of the top 100 documentaries. Most documentaries start out in a handful of theaters, and as word of mouth spreads, the number of theaters increases. The number two documentary, March of the Penguins, for example, opened on only four screens, but eventually was shown on 2506 screens (grossing $77 437 223). The top–grossing documentary, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, perhaps because of Moore’s drawing power, opened on a whopping 868 screens and topped out at 2011 theaters (grossing $119 194 771). Part of the reason for most documentaries’ beginning their runs in a more modest number of theaters is the expense of producing and distributing films to theaters: each print costs upward of $1500–$2000 (according to
Expelled’s producers apparently were willing to gamble on a big opening weekend because they believed they had a successful strategy for box office success (p 15). Motive Entertainment, the marketer for Expelled, claims credit for building up interest in Mel Gibson’s 2004 Hollywood movie The Passion of the Christ through “viral” word-of-mouth marketing, including private screenings in churches and parish halls, among other promotions. Similarly, for several months before its theater release, Expelled was shown to religious conservatives in churches and rented theaters, and heavily promoted on-line. The intent in the marketing of both films was to excite conservative Christians about the movies and to encourage them to show up on the opening weekend. Large crowds on opening weekend create a buzz for a movie that can carry it through several weeks’ tenure in the theaters, increasing the box office and — for a documentary with a mission, like Expelled — ensure it a wide audience. The plan worked very well for The Passion of the Christ, which opened on Ash Wednesday on 3006 screens and collected more than $125 000 000 by the end of the following weekend. Walt Ruloff, Expelled’s executive producer, clearly placed a great deal of confidence in this strategy; he suggested to the Los Angeles Times (2008 Apr 18) that the movie might top Fahrenheit 9/11’s opening weekend of $23.9 million!
Things did not go quite that well for Expelled, although the movie had a very successful opening weekend, April 18–20, 2008. Patrons at those 1052 theaters contributed $2 970 848 to the total gross, which was enough to put Expelled into the top ten grossing movies opening that week. For a documentary, those numbers were stunning. I must say, we at NCSE were dismayed at this successful beginning, but we hypothesized that the audiences probably were composed primarily of conservative Christians who had seen the movie or heard of it through their churches, and that the general public might be less enthusiastic about it in future weeks.
Our hypothesis appeared to be confirmed: after scathing reviews (see p 24) and apparent public indifference beyond its conservative Christian base, Expelled quickly sank from the top ten; by its second weekend in the theaters, it had dropped to 13th. By the third weekend, only 656 theaters were carrying the film — about a 40% drop. By the fourth weekend, only 402 theaters were still showing the film, and the average gross/theater had dropped from a high on opening day of $1149 to a dismal $300. Within a few more days, the average gross/theater had dropped to around $100; by the end of May, the producer had ceased reporting statistics to Box Office Mojo (personal communication from website staff). The reported close date for Expelled was August 7, 2007. The total reported gross from Expelled’s theatrical release is $7 690 545. The successful opening weekend accounted for 38% of this gross, suggesting a lack of “legs” for this film.
A good point of comparison is the Bill Maher documentary Religulous, which is sharply critical of the Abrahamic religions and opened October 1, 2008. The production budget of Religulous was roughly $2.5 million, 30–40% lower than that of Expelled, and it opened in less than half as many theaters. Yet it grossed $3 409 643 on its opening weekend, about 15% higher than Expelled’s opening weekend gross of $2 970 848. Whereas the number of theaters showing Expelled had steadily and rapidly decreased from its opening weekend, Religulous was actually shown in more theaters in its second and third week (568 and 540, respectively) than its first (502). By its seventh week, according to the website The Numbers (http://www.the-numbers.com/), Religulous was still showing in 238 theaters, with a gross per theater of $968. Box Office Mojo’s most recent numbers show its total gross at $12 572 995 — 61% higher than that of Expelled’s entire theatrical run! Despite Expelled’s higher production budget and wider distribution, Religulous has surpassed it by virtually every measure of box office success. Expelled’s website continues to call it the “#1 documentary of 2008”, but that is clearly no longer the case.
Expelled’s successful opening weekend at least provided bragging rights. According to Box Office Mojo, Expelled is the fifth most successful political documentary (after three Michael Moore films and An Inconvenient Truth), the twelfth most successful documentary (between Hoop Dreams and Tupac: Resurrection), and the twelfth most successful Christian film (between Facing the Giants and Megiddo: The Omega Code II). But those rights did not come cheap: Premise Media’s Logan Craft told the Dallas Morning News (2008 Apr 27) that nearly $4 million was spent on producing the movie and “a multiple of that” in distribution and marketing so far. So it is unlikely that the producers have recouped their investment.
Not all viewers will have paid for a ticket to see Expelled. Its producers were encouraging visitors to book a theater and rent the movie for a special showing, and it is not known whether they got many takers. Additionally, the producers have released the movie in DVD form on October 21, 2008. We can anticipate that Expelled will have a future in living rooms and in church basements, even if it had a short life on the big screen. NCSE and its allies will have to remain vigilant to ensure that the movie or segments from it are not taught in public schools because of its religious message. Even without the religious message, however, the anti-science message of Expelled is sufficient to keep it from classroom use (see p 27).