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Darwin: Too Hot for US?

September 14th, 2009 · 11 Comments

I’m happy to join in a bout of public lamentation over our national ignorance of—and hostility toward—science, but I’m extremely skeptical about this story, which seems to be getting a good deal of bloglove.  The premise is that a critically-hailed biopic about Charles Darwin isn’t finding a U.S. distributor because it will be “hugely divisive” in a fundie-fillled country where polls show a majority don’t believe in evolution. The thing is, the evidence for this is actually pretty scant. The film’s producer suggests that this is why it hasn’t been picked up, and the article notes that the film has (unsurprisingly) been criticized on supposedly “influential” Christian movie-review sites, but on a moment’s reflection, the premise that any of this should be a barrier to the film’s getting picked up ought to seem pretty dubious.  After all, lots and lots of films released every year are anathema to evangelicals and social conservatives. If that were enough to scupper a film, how did Religulous or Contact or Wilde—to say nothing of smaller niche market films like Jesus Camp—ever get picked up?

Now, what’s possible is that the film’s producers are only getting much smaller offers than they want to accept, because U.S. distributors see it as the kind of film that would do limited theatrical release in the slightly more offbeat theaters of metro areas—think In the Loop or The Hurt Locker.  But I suspect that goes to the kind of films that do well in the U.S. market, not any particular theological controversy. If it were a biopic of (say) theist Immanuel Kant, it would still probably end up drawing the kind of educated audience that constitutes the audience for a Darwin flick.  The thinly-supported claim that this is about our national ambivalence about evolution strikes me as an attempt to gin up enough publicity that some distributor will meet the producers’ asking price.

Tags: Art & Culture · Journalism & the Media · Religion · Science



11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Justin // Sep 14, 2009 at 11:08 am

    I am likewise skeptical of these claims. One possibility is that the producers know that the U.S. box office draw is likely to be very low and figure that some ecclesiastical scandal will fuel enhanced home video revenues a few months down the road and, ultimately, make more money that way.

  • 2 Murali // Sep 14, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Just one nit to pick: Kant was Agnostic (maybe a deist and quite radical for his time.) He denied that people could have any actual knowledge about God. His whole critique of pure reason was to point out that questions about God were beyond the proper scope of speculative reason.

  • 3 Brian Moore // Sep 14, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Yeah, while I love making fun of anti-evolutionists, I’m not sure they have the pull to do something like this.

    I think it might be a bit more like “Alexander,” where the claims that people wouldn’t like the movie because of the orientation of the title character fell to claims that people didn’t like the movie because it wasn’t very good.

    Or maybe a vast chunk of the movie going audience just doesn’t think movies about scientists are interesting at all, and so producers don’t think they’ll make much money off of it.

    “The thinly-supported claim that this is about our national ambivalence about evolution strikes me as an attempt to gin up enough publicity that some distributor will meet the producers’ asking price.”

    Seems to be working pretty well!

  • 4 digamma // Sep 14, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    Seems like marketing to me. When this comes out it will be “TEH FILM TEH WINGNUTS DIDN’T WANT YOU TO SEE!!!11”

  • 5 Justin // Sep 14, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    To add to what Brian Moore suggested, yes, most moviegoers are not likely to be that enthused about seeing a film about a scientist. Even the film “Kinsey”, which featured more than a fair amount of sex-related material and nudity (a topic much less dry and stodgy than evolution) only made 10.2 million domestic box office against a production cost of 11 million.

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // Sep 14, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    …and sex aside, Kinsey was (1) very good, and (2) featured a bunch of actors who were already stars in the U.S.

  • 7 The Other Anderson // Sep 15, 2009 at 11:27 am

    I take the point of the post, but Darwin and natural selection press lots of buttons that aren’t pressed by Bill Maher making an ass of himself, etc.

  • 8 B. Kennedy // Sep 15, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    Where are these phantasmic people hostile towards “science”?

    Is it any particular science? I’ve always hated physics myself. Gravity is always dragging me down, man. I’m not big on Gravity’s tag team partners Momentum and Inertia either.

    In science you perform experiments designed to test your hypothesis. So why hasn’t some brainiac developed an experiment with a control group of say, small lizards that are left as they are and another group that are subjected to different conditions and extremes to the point where they become a different species that 1) can breed with each other to produce the same new species and 2) can’t breed with their control group predecessor.

    It’s a lot easier to do as many of the commenters in the linked article and just declare whole swaths of people “anti-science,” largely on the basis they have a monotheistic faith (almost always Christianity) and aren’t among the new self-proclaimed enlightened class.

    Funnily enough, such a process isn’t scientific. They’re no better than I am when I assert that people who believe in nothing will fall for anything.

  • 9 Julian Sanchez // Sep 16, 2009 at 1:07 am

    The cartoon conception of science offered above disinclines me to treat this as a conversation meriting serious engagement, but what the hell:


  • 10 Pithlord // Sep 16, 2009 at 9:38 am

    I want me a biopic of Immanuel Kant. Always on time, celibate, well-read; what’s not to like?

    On biopics of scientists, Beautiful Mind did pretty well.

  • 11 Laure // Sep 17, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    The atmosphere of the marketplace is always something taken into account, so I wouldn’t say the US’s famously anti-evolution tendencies are irrelevant to distributors. You can’t really compare this film, a sappy, expensive-to-market costume drama, with Religulous or Jesus Camp, which can be directly flogged to the religion-haters. Wilde might be more appropriate, except it came out over a decade ago and was ostensibly more about the man than is the Darwin film. It’s probably more important that the film looks like it wouldn’t have much appeal in general to US audiences, and it’s not the kind of picture a controversy is likely to help. But I’m not sure what their point is in either case– if a studio can’t sell it in the US, for whatever the reason, they’re not going to pick it up.

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