If you’re old enough, or playful, you remember a television show that was all the rage in the early seventies, Monty Python’s Flying Circus – although some didn’t care for that sort of absurdist, surreal British humor. That is to say, they didn’t get the joke, or get any of the jokes. What is so funny about a dead parrot? And they found the Ministry of Silly Walks offensive. The Bob Hope crowd had no use for that sort of thing.
And this presented a marketing dilemma. Sure, BBC2, the series’ producer, had its built-in market – sardonic Brits. But in America, when a number of episodes were broadcast by ABC in their Wide World of Entertainment thing in 1975, they were re-edited, and the continuity and flow, such as it was, was lost. And although ABC was just trying to make such stuff make more sense to American audiences – they had to sell ad time, after all – ABC missed the point. Sense had nothing to do with it, and when ABC refused to stop treating the series in that way, the Pythons took them to court. Initially the court ruled that their artistic rights had been violated, but also refused to stop the ABC broadcasts. On appeal the Python guys gained control over all subsequent US broadcasts of its programs. So the shows popped up here and there, where the Python guys could find a distributor who wouldn’t mess with their stuff.
And then times changed – subsequent spins-offs, the Python movies, the recent Broadway musical, John Cleese becoming an entertainment icon – absurdist, surreal British humor, without editorial modification, became rather standard stuff. It made big money, and you don’t argue with success. ABC might have been right at the time, about American tastes, but the ground shifted out from under them. They may have hated those Python segments that began with “…and now for something completely different” – time to get out the scissors – but they came to embrace that. NBC was making too much money with Laugh-In.
But that’s the big problem out here in Hollywood, finding something you can market as completely new and terribly interesting, but that won’t confuse or offend people. People like the familiar, and hate being bored. They really do want what they think and feel to be challenged, but within limits. It’s up to you to guess what those limits are. They expect to be surprised, but in a way that confirms what they know is true.
Of course this drives studio executives crazy, so they produce sequels – a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, where Johnny Depp will be off-the-wall outrageous. You’ll never know what to expect, just as you expect.
There’s a fine line here. No one knows quite what it is. But you give people what they want, as you really do want their money. You guess a lot. Great concept! Fantastic screenplay! How the hell do I market this and to whom? What distributors will even touch this?
So the film industry descends on film festivals, at the moment the one in Toronto, looking for new films that hit that sweet spot, even if they don’t quite know where that sweet spot is. Of course it has occurred to you that politics works exactly the same way – promise change, and a return to traditional values, and say that things soon will be completely different, but you’ll like it, because it will be what you really know and expect. Only Obama has been able to pull that off so far, but the same Bob Hope crowd is mighty pissed-off. They didn’t get Monty Python. They don’t get Obama.
But what just happened in Toronto is the issue here. On Thursday, September 10, the big preview screening was, from BBC Films and the UK Film Council, the new feature film Creation:
What happens when a world-renowned scientist, crushed by the loss of his eldest daughter, conceives a book which will prove the non-existence of God? This is the story of Charles Darwin and his masterwork “The Origin of Species.” It tells of a global revolution played out the confines of a small English village; a passionate marriage torn apart by the most dangerous idea in history; and a theory saved from extinction by the logic of a child.
Does that sound compelling? Is there a market for this movie? Will a major destruction company pick this up?
We shall see. The dean of American film critics, Roger Ebert, was at the screening. He wonders about that:
During the first press screening here of “Creation,” during a scene when Charles Darwin walks out of church during a sermon on the first book of Genesis, an audience member stood up and walked out. Was he offended by the film? There’s no way to say. There were an unusually large number of walk-outs, but who knows if they were leaving for theological reasons, or to get in line for the screenings of “Bright Star” or “Fish Tank,” or because of boredom? I hope it wasn’t boredom. Although it’s a movie with a good deal of talk, at least no one shouted out, “You lie!”
But the film is problematic, as it opens with a title card describing the theory in that book as “the most important idea in the history of mankind.” Ebert considers that debatable:
Had Darwin observed the wishes of his wife Emma, he would never have published it, and credit for Natural Selection might have gone to Alfred Russell Wallace or others. Its underlying concepts were very much in the air during those years, and the theory, which is obviously and provably true, would certainly have been codified by someone. Emma was a fervent Christian. Darwin began life as one, but gradually drifted from the faith as his researches suggested that God need not have been involved in the creation of species, and that Genesis could not be taken literally. This was generally agreed upon by many serious Biblical scholars of the time, but they didn’t thunder it from pulpits. In the eyes of the public Darwin would have committed blasphemy.
So that’s the plot, but it’s dull:
Fearing to offend his wife, he was shy about extending his belief to the evolution of mankind itself, but it is certainly what he privately thought. He denied being an atheist, but said agnosticism came close to reflecting his views. Apart from his research and ideas about science, that conflict in this marriage and with the conventional religious of his times was the most significant thing about him. The movie devotes most of its attention to the marriage, as Emma (Jennifer Connelly) rebukes Charles (Paul Bettany) for his heretical convictions and thinks they mean the two of them cannot spend eternity together. They’re both intelligent and deeply in love, and it’s a shame the movie doesn’t allow them to fully debate their differences. It sees their opinions instead somewhat vaguely as personality characteristics. Did it occur to Darwin or his wife that nothing in his ideas precluded the existence of God? Today, no major religion finds conflict between God and the theory of evolution. The majority of Christians can live with both ideas; religious opposition to Darwin is limited primarily to a fundamentalist minority of American Christians.
For anyone else, this is a yawn:
Did he restrain himself in fear of provoking controversy? Has it gotten to that point? “Creation” dares not state relevant ideas that were acceptable nearly fifty years ago, when “Inherit the Wind” was nominated for four Academy Awards. There’s no such shyness in the anti-Darwin faction. …
I wonder if they’ll concern the movie’s potential audience. Those who completely disapprove of Darwin will probably not attend in the first place. Those who admire him may be disappointed.
And of course, this calls for additional marketing, as the Telegraph (UK) reports here:
A British film about Charles Darwin has failed to find a US distributor because his theory of evolution is too controversial for American audiences, according to its producer. Creation, starring Paul Bettany, details Darwin’s “struggle between faith and reason” as he wrote On the Origin of Species. It depicts him as a man who loses faith in God following the death of his beloved 10-year-old daughter, Annie.
The film was chosen to open the Toronto Film Festival and has its British premiere on Sunday. It has been sold in almost every territory around the world, from Australia to Scandinavia.
However, US distributors have resolutely passed on a film which will prove hugely divisive in a country where, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution.
Read on to discover that the Christian movie website movieguide.org says that Darwin is the father of eugenics and says he was “a racist, a bigot and a 1800s naturalist whose legacy is mass murder.” You see, Darwin’s “half-baked theory” directly influenced Adolf Hitler and led to “atrocities, crimes against humanity, cloning and genetic engineering.” The Telegraph goes on to tell us that Christian websites in America do dismiss evolution as “a silly theory with a serious lack of evidence to support it despite over a century of trying.”
In terms of marketing, that can be useful:
Jeremy Thomas, the Oscar-winning producer of Creation, said he was astonished that such attitudes exist 150 years after On the Origin of Species was published. “That’s what we’re up against. In 2009. It’s amazing,” he said.
“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. People have been saying this is the best film they’ve seen all year, yet nobody in the US has picked it up.
“It is unbelievable to us that this is still a really hot potato in America. There’s still a great belief that He made the world in six days. It’s quite difficult for we in the UK to imagine religion in America. We live in a country which is no longer so religious. But in the US, outside of New York and LA, religion rules. “Charles Darwin is, I suppose, the hero of the film. But we tried to make the film in a very even-handed way. Darwin wasn’t saying ‘kill all religion’, he never said such a thing, but he is a totem for people.”
And we get this:
Early reviews have raved about the film. The Hollywood Reporter said: “It would be a great shame if those with religious convictions spurned the film out of hand as they will find it even-handed and wise.”
It sounds like the film is plodding and dull, and someone needs to gin up some controversy. And that is working if you browse some of the hundreds of comments at the Telegraph, like this one:
Would some nice soul in Europe please take in a poor, frustrated American who is tired of being lumped in with the rest of the religious crazies and backwards southern conservatives? I should note that despite being from Texas, I do enjoy a good science article, find evolution fascinating, and have almost completed my postgraduate degree, so I should be able to contribute to my new adopted country’s economy (preferably one with universal health care since “hell” will freeze over before that ever happens here). I’d just like to get out of the U.S. before the nut jobs that live around me run this country into the ground any more than they already have.
And there’s Abdul the Butcher:
The reason this movie was not picked up for American distribution has nothing to do with its antireligious message. It has no car chases, fights, and the only nudity is fossils. This is the kind of boring stuff you watch if you don’t have cable or satellite and can only get PBS. It’s like the movie about Gandhi. Like who cares, man? I don’t believe in either religion or science. They are both nonsense. No one has ever been able to create life out of inert matter.
Well, that’s odd, but there is Dick:
To anybody questioning the religious fervor within America – The American Taliban is real. They, the truly extreme, are a minority but they are a minority that is free to do as they please.
Who I fear here in America are the religiously lazy. These folks believe in a god, they just don’t put much thought into it. For them it is enough to invoke god and any behavior is forgiven. The AT (American Taliban) confront children on the street with the Passion of Christ without parental consent, they Baptize kids while on school field trips away from Mom and Dad, they kill doctors and are celebrated, they are now trying to outlaw The Pill and any abortion (even rape) in Florida, I can count on one hand the atheists who have been elected to office, they overturned gay marriage in California, they voted for Bush and his war, and on and on and on. The religiously lazy allow all of this to occur. God wants it, that’s good enough. No one questions the “friend of a friend heard it from somebody who was told by this guy” word of god. Interpret the bible anyway you want as long as it’s OUR bible and you don’t require too much from Joe the Plumber/farmer/cable guy.
It’s the religiously lazy who will doom America to become a theocracy.
And there’s Steve:
As an American, I don’t believe in the theory of evolution. It’s simply a bunch of hogwash to give people an out to be able to believe that God doesn’t exist. The people who support evolution know it’s a junk theory but they still abide by it for fear of being insulted.
This is a reminder, however, of America’s conservatism. Europe’s notoriously loose morals and hang loose attitude towards anything spiritual are always “shocked” by the fact that America is more conservative on these and other issues. Gay marriage, the death penalty and abortion are other classic examples – and of course George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004. And now Barack Obama, to his horror, is discovering that he might be slowly going the way of Gray Davis due to his liberal folly.
But back to Charles Darwin and his evil theory of evolution – it’s so tragic that it is so widespreadly [sic] embraced in today’s world.
But there is Shoshanna:
There’s one reason, and reason only, that film distributors will, as a group, give a movie a pass – they don’t see any chance whatsoever of it making any money.
But the problem here is not one of too much religion, but of too little education.
Contrary to some views – particularly their own – the tongue-speaking, snake-waving, bible-thumping extremists of “the Religious Right” are very much a minority in this country, and not a group whose film-watching preferences would carry much weight with profit-focused distributors who care only about the numbers.
Too controversial? Good lord, if one could find a transgendered nun who, prior to her surgery, had four daughters with her long-lost brother – a monk, who has since realized that he’s gay – and the two of them have now renounced religious life and are happily living together as a gay couple running a brothel in Nevada featuring their four daughters as the star hookers… they’d all be invited to appear together on every daytime talk show in the country, and would no doubt be made the stars of their own reality TV series.
Sorry, boys, but the “too controversial” claim is never going to fly. Now it may be the picture is just so egregiously awful that no distributor believes anyone will pay money to see it.
But there is something larger at play:
The problem, however, with that possibility is that, over the last fifty years and more in this country, there has been no evidence whatsoever to show that the lack of a storyline, or competent performances, or even one single redeeming feature, will deter paying customers.
To the contrary, no matter how bad a picture might be, if it offers defiance of authority, people getting naked, and something large and important being blown up, the kids will flock to see it – and since that’s where the money is, that’s all that matters.
So, it isn’t about controversy, and it isn’t about quality – but it is very much about the subject matter, and the simple fact that those kids to whom I just referred, and a pretty fair percentage of their parents, have either never heard of Darwin, or have just barely heard and have no interest at all in hearing any more.
Our school system has been deteriorating for years, and we now have high school graduates – and, horrifyingly, even university graduates – who are either fully or functionally illiterate, know little or nothing of history, even less of science, and have no intellectual curiosity whatsoever. Whatever they’ve been taught to believe, they accept without question or interest.
Now, why is it that anyone would think these people would be interested in a film about the personal and philosophical struggles of Darwin as he pens his magnum opus?
That’s about right. And step back from thinking about movies. Marketing anything to Americans today is tricky. Mass marketing is becoming impossible. Niche marketing is the best you can do, pleasing a specific segment and ignoring the rest. And yes, Obama has his work cut out for him. National politics is mass marketing. That is hard.
But yes, that aside, this Darwin film sounds dull.