Is film's marketing intelligently designed?

Ben Stein on the "Expelled" movie poster.

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KAI RYSSDAL: "Horton Hears a Who" is heading into its fourth weekend in theaters today. The Dr. Seuss story still has the year's biggest opening so far. A couple of years ago a far less gentle film, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," did pretty well for itself. Despite all the big Hollywood studios taking a pass. They probably figured an R-rated movie in Aramaic about the death of Jesus wouldn't sell. (I dunno.) They got that one wrong. It eventually became one of the highest grossing films ever.

And some producers are now hoping Christian audiences will be just as passionate about a new film opening next weekend. It's a documentary about intelligent design. That's the idea that living things are the work of one intelligent creator. And they hope it's going to do for the creation-versus-evolution debate what Mel did for the crucifixion. Stacey Vanek-Smith reports.


STACEY VANEK-SMITH: How do you make a blockbuster out of a documentary about politics in academia? That was the question facing the producers of "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed." The film focuses on a group of university professors who say they were fired for dissing Darwin.

WOMAN IN FILM: If you have questioned Darwininsm, that's it, your career is over.

BEN STEIN: Scientists are not allowed to even think thoughts that involve an intelligent creator.

Thoughts like a higher being created the universe, and there's nothing natural about natural selection. Controversial, yes. But the stuff blockbusters are made of? After all, Darwin doesn't exactly have the mass appeal of Batman. And "Expelled"'s star, Ben Stein, has a latte drinking, op-ed reading kind of following, but may lack the box office pull of, say, Jesus. Still Executive Producer Walt Ruloff insists there are no small films, only small marketing efforts.

Walt Ruloff: As business people we said, "OK, where can we get some real traction with this?

Ruloff knew exactly where -- the faith-based community. "Expelled" argues that academia persecutes people who talk seriously about intelligent design. That's a message that could resonate with religious groups -- the same groups that helped "Passion of the Christ" bank more than a half billion dollars at the box office. But Ruloff says, it's a tough crowd. He points out films like "Constantine" and "The Nativity Story" tried to ride "Passion"'s coattails and couldn't pull it off.

Ruloff: Hollywood's been really trying to replicate this model. And they have failed over and over again.

"Expelled" is spending millions to succeed, huge for a documentary. It's hired four PR firms. It's running a sweepstakes for church groups, offering a cash prize to the one that sells the most tickets. It's paying up to 10 Grand for schools to send their students. The movie even staged a songwriting competition.

SONG: If you challenge evolution, you get expelled!

Oh, and Ben Stein traveled across the country on a bright red bus for "Expelled, the Road Show." This is mostly the work of Motive Marketing's Paul Lauer. He's the guy who made "Passion" into a phenomenon by harnessing the power of this country's 160 million Christians.

PAUL LAUER: How do you get this big amoeba to flex its muscle? When it flexes, it's enormous. The challenge has always been, How do you get those people to activate.

Not the traditional Hollywood way. Lauer went directly to leaders in religious communities and showed them "Expelled." He provided them with reading materials and videos that drive home intelligent design's creationist philosophy. The hope? To inspire lessons and ticket sales.

LAUER: You're transmitting to them as a little mini-tower and they in turn transmit to all the people around them.

One such transmitter is Darrell Bock, a professor of New Testament studies at the Dallas Theological Seminary, and a kind of evangelical marketing guru for Hollywood. Bock says he was eager to promote "Expelled."

DARRELL BOCK: Yesterday morning I showed a trailer of the film, talked about why it was important to the university community, etc.

Bock believes the faith-based market will embrace "Expelled." But Steve Blume, who has financed movies like "Platoon" and "Hoosiers" isn't so sure. He says marketing savvy alone won't guarantee another "Passion."

Steve Blume: It's a one-off success because it was fresh and new and different. And just because that one worked doesn't mean it's opened up a whole new genre.

But Professor Bock says the market is there, it's just that Hollywood doesn't understand it. He says a lot of faith-based flops, like "Evan Almighty," didn't have anything serious to say to Christians.

BOCK: And I'm not sure Hollywood has yet come to grips with what makes a faith-based community a faith-based community and why they might be interested in more substantive pieces.

Hollywood will come to grips with Expelled on April 18th, when it opens in theaters.

I'm Stacey Vanek-Smith for Marketplace.

About the author

Stacey Vanek Smith is a senior reporter for Marketplace, where she covers banking, consumer finance, housing and advertising.

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