Documentaries in general – even relative “blockbusters” like those of Michael Moore or Al Gore – reach a remarkably small proportion of the American public. The religious goals of the producers of Expelled will not be met if the movie appeals only to conservative Christians, the movie’s natural base. To make Expelled successful will require creating a “buzz” that will attract mainstream viewers.

Motive Marketing is an obvious choice for the grassroots marketing that is essential to the success of a movie like Expelled. This company was successful in applying viral marketing techniques to promote Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and Walden Media/Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia, and their skills (plus those of three other PR firms) are being employed to promote Expelled.

Giving the impression that people are flocking to see Expelled requires a big opening weekend, and the team at Motive Marketing is striving to inflate the number of tickets sold in three ways:

  1. The Expelled Challenge

    In the “Expelled Challenge,” the makers of Expelled offer to pay Christian schools by reimbursing them for their tickets based on how many students attend. On their website, described as a “site specifically designed for students, teachers, pastors, youth leaders and organizations to provide useful tools and resources to promote the ideas surrounding this highly anticipated film”, the following enticement appears:

    “What is the Expelled Challenge?

    To engage Christian schools and home school groups to get as many students, parents, and faculty from their school/group out to see Ben Stein’s new movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (opening in theaters April 2008).

    Each school/home group that registers through the link below and submits their ticket stubs will be eligible for a donation as funds permit, but the school that submits the most ticket stubs will win a donation of $10,000!”

    It remains to be seen how many schools have taken up the Expelled crew on their offer, or how many donations “funds permit”. However, offering to pay people to see their film seems to be, at best, a bad business model. It is, however, an excellent way to encourage a large turnout for the first weekend’s take.

  2. Political screenings

    Another way the producers of Expelled can increase that important opening weekend attendance is to stir up controversy over the film. Unfortunately, they have chosen to do so by exacerbating one of the most unfortunate trends in American society today: the politicization of education. There have been at least two private screenings for state legislatures that have anti-evolution bills on the docket. One was held to drum up support for Florida’s Senate Bill 2692: the so-called “Evolution Academic Freedom Act”, which aims to encourage the teaching of creationism by providing legal protection to educators who present “alternatives to evolution” (i.e., intelligent design and/or creation science ). Another screening was held in Missouri, where two similar bills, House Bills 2554 and 1315, aim to promote “academic freedom” and “protect intellectual diversity”; the latter bill was introduced by a legislator who previously introduced a bill that would have fired teachers who didn’t give equal time to intelligent design.

    Though the showings were not as well-attended as the makers of Expelled might like you to believe, these events still illustrate Premise Media’s disturbing willingness to politicize science.

  3. Planting Reviews

    Another way to swell the first weekend’s gate is to hype the movie by salting reviews from friendly sources. Those who signed up for the Expelled newsletter updates began receiving promotional materials for the film in late March. Newsletters were peppered with stellar reviews from various conservative talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Medved who resonate with conservative audiences. Medved, in addition, is a Senior Fellow at the intelligent design-promoting Discovery Institute, heralded in the film; it is unsurprising that he would be an Expelled enthusiast. These positive reviews from conservative pundits and similar friendly sources are useful in helping the marketing company reach the base of conservative Christians.

    However, other positive reviews seem to be from actual movie critics. Ted Baehr of Movieguide says “Four stars!” For someone who has not heard of Movieguide, it may sound more legitimate and unbiased than conservative pundits like Limbaugh or Medved. However, a little research reveals that “Movieguide” is a misleadingly neutral title.

    Movieguide is a “ministry dedicated to redeeming the values of the mass media according to biblical principles, by influencing entertainment industry executives and helping families make wise media choices” (according to their website). Such conservative evangelical reviewers will be sympathetic to Expelled’s religious message, and less likely to be familiar with the existing arguments against its distortions of science and history. To draw as many people to the movie theaters as possible, it makes sense for Motive Marketing to promote reviews of its film from such sites – and ignore negative reviews from mainstream movie critics (available here)

Of course, it is not unusual for a marketing company to promote a movie – that’s exactly what they’re hired for. And none of this promotion is illegal or necessarily unethical. But only time, not artificially inflated turnout statistics, will tell whether Expelled has the “legs” of successful documentaries such as those of Michael Moore – but we predict that it will have a several-year career in church basements.