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Skepticism in All Things

Over the past week or so, many skeptics online have probably seen the Telegraph UK’s report on the new film Creation, which is a biographical account of Charles Darwin’s life and, specifically, his crisis of faith. The claim made by the Telegraph report, sourced from comments by the film’s producer, is that the film has no US distribution because of mainstream America’s religiously-based aversion to Darwin. Now, maybe it’s just because I’m a resolute film snob and know way too much useless information about the film industry – but I didn’t buy that as the real reason. And so I looked into it.

First of all, this particular piece – the only one that I’ve seen passed around about this issue – is not giving the entire story. Here’s a key phrase to look at: “according to its producer.” This means that the majority of the article’s quotes are coming from the one person who has a deeply vested interest in explaining why he wasn’t able to get it in American theaters. American film distribution, especially when the film is produced by production companies overseas and very especially when the film doesn’t have extremely well-known A-list stars, is a tricky business. The current economic situation has made the business even more risky, and that puts films like Creation – not a summer blockbuster or genre flick, but a thoughtful, independent period piece – at a huge disadvantage. For example, the film Slumdog Millionaire, last year’s Oscar winner, which already had demonstrated success and critical acclaim, nearly never even got distributed in theaters. Films wanting to succeed in America without the support of a big, firmly-established American studio are fighting an uphill battle from day one. To get a better idea of the larger picture of what independent and other small films face in the distribution battle, you can read the comments from Sundance Film Festival director Geoff Gilmore, those on the subject by film writers and commenters at the industry-respected film criticism and news blog GreenCine Daily, and a brief description of how, in recent years, Hollywood product dominates the US cinema.

This has been the case in general for the past few years – but even more interestingly, in just this past week, within the film industry and specifically within the Toronto Film Festival (where Creation just screened), critics have signaled a final, crushing defeat for the independent film distribution market.

The battle for film distribution can often be won or lost by one factor, the other important point to look at in this question of why we Americans are not currently expecting Creation in theaters – whether or not the film in question is any good. If a film produced outside of a major American studio sucks, it stands even less than a chance than it had before for widespread American distribution. Despite the Telegraph’s glowing review (it claims a vague collection of positive “early reviews” and mentions only one review by name), just about everywhere else, the film has been panned.

Let’s ask this: f the only issue in distributing this film is controversy, why on earth would an American distributor NOT jump at it? Controversy sells tickets. Both religious and non-religious audiences would come, each with their own agendas. The most controversy, the bigger the audiences. Ask Michael Moore, or Bill Maher and the others behind Religulous. To a distributor, that’s nothing but profit, which is what they’re in it for in the first place. But if the film quality itself can’t sustain the interest, the risk of inevitably failing is high, perhaps too high to merit buying it. The website Cinematical, writes about exactly this.

None of these outside factors are precisely the Creation producer’s fault, and his point in general does stand. I personally think America’s emphasis on religion is far too heavy and that it interferes with many good things – including, of course, the teaching and acceptance of evolution. I also know that many Christians have been denouncing the film because of its subject matter. But I hope that the skeptic movement has not been willing to accept this single article as truth just because it aligns with what we already think. It may be true. But I really don’t think there’s enough evidence out there to support the claim that the film is not being shown in this country because of America’s religious attitude. In all things, I would like to be careful of not jumping to a conclusion that fits in with my particular mindset without thinking it through critically beforehand.

(Addition – I just remember that Amateur Scientist has a similar, if more irreverent, take on this here.)

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