This started out as a reply to a comment made on this post, but the amount of research quickly got out of hand so I decided to give a post of its own.
Bad made a comment:
I’m not really sure “tanking” makes much sense. The film certainly didn’t meet its maker’s stated goals, but its seems to have the basic and relatively mediocre trajectory of any documentary.
My reply to Bad:
Thanks for the comment, Bad! Here’s why I said that Expelled is “tanking”:
Expelled is playing on an over a thousand screens, which is absolutely unprecedented except for the top two Michael Moore documentaries. Each movie theatre that they open in costs, right off the bat, $1500 to $2000 for the cost of printing the film (see HSW: Movie Distribution). So, since they opened on so many screens, even estimating on the low end, they’re already at least $1.5 million in costs. The theatres retain a portion of the money made from tickets; I’ve seen estimates rating up to 50% (here’s one), but let’s lowball it and call it 20%. Boxofficemojo.com is currently reporting an estimated take of $5.3 million for the movie to date (that number will become clearer tomorrow, obviously). Taking off 20%, they’ve made 4.24 million. Subtract the printing costs and you’re left with about $2.75 million dollars in revenue to date.
Of course, that’s before any consideration of the aggressive marketing they’ve been doing. The LA Times noted that the Expelled advertising budget was “in the single-digit millions”. Given that, I would be extremely surprised to see that they had managed to swim out of the pool of red ink yet, and that’s one definition of “tanking” that I’m willing to run with.
None of this seems like the basic trajectory of any documentary I’ve seen or heard of; I”m admittedly not an expert on film distribution and box office reports, but if you could enlighten me more on the trajectory of a documentary, I’d greatly appreciate it.
Another definition goes by the stated words of the producers, as you noted in your comment. Again, the LA Times reported a quote from Walt Ruloff, the executive producer of the movie:
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 constitutes another meaning to “tanking” that I’m willing to go with.
And that’s not even counting the pathetic moves of the “bring 25 people and get a Ben Stein bobblehead” and the payoffs of $5 to $10 to schools and home-schoolers for each person that they bring. (The current status of this last bit leaves me a little confused: they were certainly offering it before, but the current page at GetExpelled makes it out to be a contest now that only a single school will win. However, the FAQ page on the site still clearly shows traces of this (see the attached screen shot). It seems likely that they tried to clean up their tracks and just failed to erase all the traces. If anyone knows what happened, please let me know!)