Monday, September 14, 2009

Are American filmgoers so opposed to Darwin?

A new British Charles Darwin biopic called Creation premiered at the Toronto film festival last week and is set to be released in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and three other European countries over the next several months, but it isn't going to be released in the US. The question is why.

The British Daily Telegraphy thinks it's because the movie is too controversial for American audiences:
according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution .... The film has sparked fierce debate on US Christian websites .... "The film has no distributor in America. It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the US, and it's because of what the film is about."

The film stars Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany and is about the struggle between his religious beliefs and his evolutionary theory. The Daily Telegraph says that "Early reviews have raved about the film," but Rotten Tomatoes lists only two reviewers, who are split: one liking it, the other not. Rotten Tomatoes, though, doesn't include the Hollywood Reporter review, which is quite positive.

John Scalzi has a different theory. He thinks it's because the movie just isn't that sexy and exciting:
it may be that a quiet story about the difficult relationship between an increasingly agnostic 19th Century British scientist and his increasingly devout wife, thrown into sharp relief by the death of their beloved 10-year-old daughter, performed by mid-list stars, is not exactly the sort of film that’s going to draw in a huge winter holiday crowd, regardless of whether that scientist happens to be Darwin or not, and that these facts are rather more pertinent, from a potential distributor’s point of view.

This latter theory has some plausibility to it. Controversy is not a good excuse not to release a film since controvery tends to bring bring in the crowds. If Christians got all upset about this movie and it made some press, then people would start piling in, just as people piled in to see The Last Temptation of Christ and Life of Brian.

Something similar happened before with the American release of Battle Royale. It was a Japanese movie set in a dystopic future in which randomly selected school children are placed on an island with weapons and forced to kill each other off for the entertainment of tv audiences. It never got an American release, and people assumed it was because it was too violent or controversial. Turns out the problem is that the Japanese studio and the American distributors couldn't come to an agreement. The Japanese wanted a major American release akin to any big budget American action movie: opening in lots of theaters with lots of promotion and such. But the American distributors would only give it a more limited release, thinking it wouldn't make much money because it was a foreign language film. Foreign language films seldom do very well in the US. For this reason, they couldn't get come to an agreement and the film was never released here in the US.

It's possible something like that is going on with Creation, where the British producers want a wide release and the American distributors think it would only be worth a limited release. It seems implausible that the film wouldn't do fine with a limited release in a couple big cities like New York, LA, San Francisco and other cities which have a lot of small theaters specifically catering to independent and foreign films like this.

Nonetheless, it will be too bad if this film doesn't get an American release, even though, I admit, I probably wouldn't go see it, since it really doesn't look like my cup of tea.

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