Define “Success”

Apparently, Expelled was a success at the box office this weekend. At least, that’s what Randy Olson and Chris Mooney say. Ed Brayton tells a different story. It seems that no one has a clear idea of what “success” means.

On one hand, it opened at 9th place over the weekend, and that $3.5 million weekend makes it number 8 on the list of top grossing political documentaries of all time. Not too shabby for a film plagued by plagiarism and unlicensed music.

On the other hand, it opened far beneath films that have been out for multiple weeks, like “Horton Hears a Who” and “Nim’s Island.” Hell, even “Prom Night” did better. Take a quick look at the other films on that list of top grossing political documentaries; it’s just above a movie that opened in one theater, and just below one that opened in two. Granted, these numbers reflect the per-theater income, but when a movie opening in over a thousand theaters can’t do better per theater than one that opened in two, that seems to be saying something. Moreover, $3.5 million might cover the cost of the film itself, but certainly not the publicity and the “we’ll pay you to go” campaign they had with religious schools. Even the producers’ own gauge for success (apparently 2 million tickets sold) was missed by a wide margin.

Before Expelled came out, people were comparing it to “The Passion of the Christ” (and its $83.8 million opening weekend). The same marketing firm worked on both, and the marketing directly to churches and friendly audiences was certainly similar. When I first started hearing these comparisons, I immediately thought of another recent movie that was repeatedly compared to “The Passion”: “The Nativity Story.” “Nativity” couldn’t move the churchgoers into the seats, and is widely considered a flop.

“The Nativity Story” made $8 million in its opening weekend.

Now, why is a movie marketed toward much the same audience, in much the same way, which made over twice as much, considered a flop, while ScienceBloggers are conceding defeat to the success juggernaut that is Expelled? Is it just because it’s a documentary? Is that what sets the “incredible success” bar so low?

Expelled certainly did better than I’d hoped, but I’m more than a little disheartened to see folks like Olson and Mooney essentially conceding defeat at this point. Instead of calling for people to make responses, and lauding the creationists for their superior framing and marketing abilities, and criticizing the scientific community for not doing enough, why not fucking do something about it? What purpose does it serve for a scientist to say “Meet Ben Stein, the New Spokesman for the Field of Evolution”? What kind of framing is that?

And what is the expected scientific response supposed to be? An equally high-budget movie responding to their claims as if they’re claims that deserve a response? Yeah, that’s good framing, letting your opponents determine the terms of the debate. A direct-to-DVD release explaining all the problems? How well do the anti-Michael Moore direct-to-DVD flicks do compared to the Michael Moore films? Why is it that the people who claim to be trying to improve scientific communication are the ones falling over themselves to declare victory for the other side?

I’ll be curious to see how “successful” Expelled is in the coming weeks, as the initial church-rush dies down.

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