Ben vs. Birds

With Christian cell biologist and theistic evolutionist Ken Miller returning to The Colbert Report last night (he’s got a new book), one of my favorite episodes of Futurama on immediately afterward (plot: penguins on Pluto), and Expelled!: No Intelligence Allowed opening in Canada next week, I thought I’d compare the box office performance of the anti-science propaganda film starring Ben Stein with two prominent documentaries starring birds, March of the Penguins and Winged Migration. The data were gleaned from Box Office Mojo (thanks, Sensuous Curmudgeon).

The results? The dinosaur descendants deftly defeated the Darwin defamers:

Expelled! March of the Penguins Winged Migration
Release date April 18,
June 24,
April 18,
Domestic Total Gross $7,614,754
(as of 5/29/08)
$77,437,223 $10,764,402
Genre Rank: Documentary 12 2 7
Opening weekend gross $2,970,848 $137,492 $33,128
Opening weekend % of total 39.0% 5.7% 0.3%
Opening weekend theaters 1,052 4 1
Opening weekend avg. per theater $2,824 $34,373 $33,128
5th weekend gross $102,690 $4,382,340 $139,896
5th weekend theaters 210 2,102 21
5th weekend avg.
per theater
$489 $3,086 $6,661
Widest Release
(# theaters)
1,052 2,506 202
Best weekend 1st 7th 12th
Best weekend gross $2,970,848 $7,117,206 $439,461
Best weekend theaters 1,052 1,867 108
Best weekend avg. per theater $2,824 $3,812 $4,069

Expelled! grossed higher and played in more theaters on its opening weekend, but average income per theater for March of the Penguins and Winged Migration, a more accurate gauge of popularity, was about 12 times greater. The stats for each film’s fifth weekend and best weekend show how both bird flicks had serious “legs,” staying in theaters for weeks (23 for Penguins) and growing enormously in popularity. Expelled!, on the other hand, plummeted from that first weekend’s plateau into a bottomless pit of public disinterest, grossing a measly $489 per theater on its fifth weekend. And that’s 2008 dollars; BOM reports that the average price of a movie ticket has gone up $0.85 since 2003 and $0.47 since 2005.

Box Office Mojo only provides dollar amounts for ticket sales, not attendance, but the numbers clearly show that Expelled! simply hasn’t put butts in seats during its U.S. run despite various questionable incentives (according to imdbcom):

The movie is being promoted by Motive Marketing, who have created several novel initiatives to raise interest in the movie. The “Expelled Challenge” will provide schools with $5 to $10 for each “Expelled” ticket stub from the first two weeks of the film’s release, up to a maximum of $10,000. To “maximize your school’s earning potential” they suggest a “school-wide mandatory field trip”. “Adopt-A-Theatre” will provide $1000 to the five largest group ticket bookings. Anyone who took a group of 25 or more to see the movie could send in for a free Ben Stein “bobblehead” doll.

What?? March of the Penguins and Winged Migration outperformed Expelled! without kickbacks or bobbleheads? Wow.

Of course, revenues and attendance aren’t the only measures of a film’s success, but with survey reports indicating that over half of all Americans embrace creationism, plus attendance by both religious and non-religious debunkers of “intelligent design” (in order to know what claims were actually being made), you have to wonder why Expelled! was such a flop. Whatever the reasons, I’m gratified that American movie-goers showed more interest in birds than in junk science, particularly:

  • that March of the Penguins is the second highest grossing documentary in history and won the 2006 Oscar for Best Documentary, and
  • that Winged Migration beat Expelled! so decisively at the box office despite never showing in more than 202 theaters at a time.

Like many biologists, including the film’s director Luc Jacquet, I was appalled when March of the Penguins was co-opted by proponents of “intelligent design” and people who saw validation of conservative ideology in the birds’ behavior. (Contrast veteran film critic Roger Ebert’s review to the comments of conservative critic/pundit Michael Medved.) In retrospect, this response isn’t so surprising. Penguins already rank among the most frequently anthropomorphized birds thanks to their upright posture and “formal wear” plumage, their production of one offspring at a time and involvement of both parents in rearing is also rather human-like, and the filmmakers further emphasized these similarities in the English narration and marketing material. For the parallels to conservative family values to work you have to ignore the existence of nearly equal gender roles, serial monogamy, homosexuality, “divorce,” “kidnapping,” and infanticide in penguin society, but hey, the extra buzz got more people into theaters (and churches) to see a nature documentary, which can’t be a bad thing.

If you haven’t seen March of the Penguins or Winged Migration, do yourself a solid and rent one or both. The extras on the Penguins DVD are worth the rental fee all by themselves. If you decide to give Expelled! a chance to make its case against the scientific establishment, please weigh the film’s message against both the facts of the cases it presents and these chilling cases from the other side of the ideological coin.

Expelled! star Ben Stein is a character actor, television personality, investment advisor, dog lover, and former speechwriter and lawyer for presidents Nixon and Ford. None of this gives him any credibility on matters of biology, of course, but I’m sure the filmmakers were hoping his previous movie and TV credits would attract mainstream audiences while his reputation as an intellectual would bolster their lame premise.

I used to like Ben, despite our many ideological differences. He’s a witty and articulate guy (even if his voice does put me to sleep), and it took guts to risk his giant ego on the MTV quiz show, Win Ben Stein’s Money. He frequently lost to ordinary folks and was often a poor sport about it, which of course made the show all the more entertaining. After it was canceled, Ben seemed to recede to the distant fringes of the pop-culture radar only to reemerge as a surprisingly progressive financial guru who supports universal health care as a “moral imperative”:

Too bad that Ben wasn’t satisfied with this new, more dignified role (plus his gig hosting America’s Most Smartest Model), because his alliance with the “intelligent design” crowd doesn’t speak well of his ability to separate fact from fantasy. Based on an interview with Craig Ferguson on the Late Late Show, he seems pathetically confused over what Darwinism and evolutionary theory actually cover and what Expelled! is whining about. Very sad…


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