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MOVIE PROJECTOR

'Expelled' may defy low expectations

April 18, 2008|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

Commentator and character actor Ben Stein, whose film career took flight when he played the boring, strait-laced economics teacher in the 1986 teen comedy "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," has come around to the other side.

As host and co-writer of "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," this time the 63-year-old Stein is the one striking a preppy rebel pose. In Premise Media Corp.'s new documentary, Stein purports to expose a conspiracy against the intelligent design movement, arguing that "Big Science" is stifling academic freedom by keeping any discussion of God out of the classroom.

"Expelled," with production and marketing budgets in the single-digit millions, is expected to make no dent at the box-office despite the widest documentary release ever, at more than 1,000 theaters. But it could dwarf forecasts with even a fraction of the faith-based crowd that turned Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" into a cultural phenomenon in 2004.

This weekend's battle for No. 1 is between the Jet Li-Jackie Chan martial arts adventure, "The Forbidden Kingdom," from Lionsgate Films and Weinstein Co., and the raunchy romantic comedy "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," from Universal Pictures. The race looks as tight as Tom and Katie at an US Weekly photo shoot, with consumer tracking polls showing both films opening in the mid-teen millions, or slightly higher.

"Expelled" faces an uphill fight in an industry that spends an estimated $117 million to produce and market the average big studio film, although as "The Passion" showed, the faith market can be a surprising force when mobilized.

"This is David versus Goliath," Stein said in a phone interview, pausing to board a plane and, in his trademark monotone drawl, order a Tazo Refresh with honey. The Biblical tale "turned out OK for David," he said, "but often in the movie business it doesn't."

"Expelled," released via Rocky Mountain Pictures, is being called deceptive by several of the scientists who were interviewed in the film.

P.Z. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris, said the producers pulled a "Borat"-style switcheroo after arranging his participation in a project called "Crossroads: The Intersection of Science and Religion."

"They played it up as a serious discussion with different points of view -- like a slightly boring documentary on 'Nova,' " he said. "Instead, we get a propaganda film portraying scientists as Nazis."

Myers found it ironic that he was "expelled" from a recent test screening at Mall of America in Minneapolis after one of the movie's producers recognized him in line.

Walt Ruloff, the movie's executive producer, said Darwinists and atheists were the ones manufacturing controversy.

"They're trying to come up with a way to discredit us," he said. "The best they can come up with is that we changed the title? Gosh, let's get real and talk about the issues."

Premise enlisted Motive Entertainment, the faith-based specialist that helped market "The Passion," in a grass-roots effort that is drawing as much fire as the film itself.

Through its website, Team "Expelled" is offering goodies to entice group sales in the Bible Belt and beyond, a move some call borderline bribery.

People who bring 25 patrons to "Expelled" can get a limited-edition Ben Stein bobblehead -- just the enticement for collectors like Projector who already have the Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh dolls.

The " 'Expelled' Challenge" urges schools and home-schooling groups to get students, parents and faculty to show up in force, promising donations of $5 to $10 per ticket stub for those who register.

"In speaking with Christian schools, we've found that hosting a school-wide 'mandatory' field trip is the best way to maximize your school's earning potential," the site explains.

Ruloff said the film could top the $23.9-million opening for Michael Moore's polemic against President Bush, "Fahrenheit 9/11," the best launch ever for a documentary.

That seems unlikely to Projector, a practitioner of the science -- or is it pseudo-science? -- of box-office forecasting. But it would be welcome, if only because the paper's shocked editors would surely put the weekend wrap-up story on Page One and at the top of the website, where it belongs every week.

Of the higher-profile films, "The Forbidden Kingdom" has the advantage of a PG-13 rating, whereas "Sarah Marshall" and "88 Minutes," an Al Pacino thriller from Sony Pictures, carry the restrictive R.

"Kingdom" was financed for an estimated $75 million by Relativity Media and Weinstein, through its new $285-million Asian Film Fund.

"Sarah Marshall," which first gained notice through a cryptic marketing campaign featuring billboards with messages such as "I'm so over you, Sarah Marshall," is the latest from producer Judd Apatow.

The $30-million production is not tracking quite as well as "Kingdom," but its reviews are solid and it has a similar feel to Apatow's hits "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."

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