NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Entering its third weekend, Ben Stein’s “Expelled: No Intelligence Designed” has entered the Top 15 on the all-time list for documentary films -– a distinction that some say is a solid box office achievement, others say is a small feat.
Associate producer Mark Mathis is among those who are pleased. The film had grossed nearly $5.8 million through Wednesday (April 30), which places it at No. 14 on the all-time list, just behind the 2005 raunchy comedy documentary “The Aristocrats” ($6.3 million). Whether Expelled can finish in the Top 10 all-time –- the No. 10 movie is “Hoop Dreams” at $7.8 million –- will be determined in the next couple weekends.
“It’s done exceptionally well when you look at it as a documentary film,” Mathis told Baptist Press. “… We’re pretty pleased. Different people have different expectations. Ask anybody who puts out a project like this, ‘Do you think you could have done better?’ most people are going to say, ‘Yeah, I think we could have done better.’ You just have these high hopes for it.”
Just like any other documentary, the challenge all along has been to get people to the theater to learn about a subject -– the cultural battle between evolution and Intelligent Design –- that some would call boring. Mathis said he and the other producers knew it would be a tall order and sought to make it part-entertainment -– with Stein’s humor shining through — to draw people to the theater. The response from moviegoers, Mathis said, has been “over the top.”
“We did exit polling on the first weekend and the exit polling done in six states with 1,100 people showed that 97 percent of the people who were polled said they liked the film,” he said.
The 90-minute movie (PG, thematic elements, very brief language) explores the ongoing academic, legal and cultural battle between supporters of Darwinian evolution and Intelligent Design, which is the theory that certain features of the universe are best explained by an intelligent cause, and not by an undirected process such as natural selection. Stein interviews supporters of Intelligent Design who say they have been “expelled” — fired, shunned or ridiculed (or all three) — from institutions for their beliefs.
Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and the Ethics & Religious Commission’s Richard Land gave the film high marks.
Although fans of liberal documentarian Michael Moore have been quick to note his films raked in far more at the box office than Expelled –- three of his films rank in the Top 5 all time, all making at least $21 million -– Mathis thinks such comparisons are unfair.
“Michael Moore comes out with a film and Michael Moore gets large amounts of time on morning shows –- NBC, ABC, CBS, cable networks. He gets tens of millions of dollars of free publicity because Big Media see the world in general the way he does. Same thing with Al Gore’s film,” Mathis said. “… Expelled doesn’t get that, and not only does it not get that, but it gets the opposite -– a massive panning.”
Jeannette Catsoulis of The New York Times called Expelled “one of the sleaziest documentaries to arrive in a very long time” and a “conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry.” Mark Olsen, writing for the Los Angeles Times, said that Expelled, “as a work of nonfiction filmmaking,” is “a sham.”
According to RottenTomatoes.com, a website that compiles movie reviews from various newspapers and websites, only 9 percent of critics gave Expelled a good review. By comparison, 93 percent of critics gave a good review to “Sicko,” Moore’s 2007 liberal film about America’s health care system.
Conservative documentaries are a rarity, while Moore is a “known commodity,” Mathis said. A better comparison for Expelled may be with Moore’s first documentary, “Roger and Me,” which was released in 1989 and made $6.7 million, good for No. 12 on the all-time list.
Mathis also noted “Expelled” targeted conservative religious people who, when compared to the rest of the population, rarely go to movies.
“[Moore] has the tables set for him in a way that it’s not set for anybody else who comes at this stuff from a conservative side,” Mathis said. “Documentary film has been traditionally a liberal arena.”
Mathis also rejects critics who say Expelled is as biased in the conservative direction as Moore’s films are in the liberal direction.
“I would say there is a very significant difference,” he said. “There is not anything in the film that you can point to and say, ‘This is dishonest. This is manipulation.’ You can disagree and say, ‘I think that drawing a connection between Darwinian ideas and Nazi ideas is not justified.’ … People can disagree. But it’s not like some other documentaries. … We didn’t just go out there and interview these people and say, ‘They say they were mistreated and that’s it.’ We were on campuses all over the place, interviewing different people and talking to different people…. Without exception, on every single campus it was acknowledged that the level of hostility toward Intelligent Design is palpable, that everybody knows about it.”
Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Box office data derived from BoxOfficeMojo.com