Darwin’s theory of distribution

460px-Anniegrave

How come almost no one has picked up on this story?

You may have heard of the new Paul Bettany-Jennifer Connelly movie about the life of Charles Darwin.

But if stories coming out of Britain are to be believed, you aren’t likely to be seeing “Creation” 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,” reads the headline of a story on the Telegraph.co.uk website. Though this story is racing through the blogosphere, it’s getting very little attention from the mainstream on this side of the Atlantic. And where it is covered in Britain, the story is not being covered by religion reporters, though it’s clearly a story about religion as well as about moviemaking and business.

And yet the issues seem important enough to merit coverage, not so much because of the merits of the well-reviewed film itself (though it seems like it would play well in art houses), but because of what it says about the state of play with regard to belief and evolution in America. Not to mention how the movie portrays the really quick complex beliefs of Charles Darwin. In other words, this movie spotlights one of our bread-and-butter religious issues, a hardy perennial.

Here’s the lede from the Telegraph article:

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.

There’s something odd going on here. Not only do we create slasher movies and highly sexually explicit films in the United States, but we import them. Are we really expected to believe that evolution is such a cultural taboo that a movie about Charles Darwin would be “too controversial?” Why don’t they find out by talking to a real life American instead of only quoting from blogs? the only person quoted in the Telegraph article is the movie’s producer — and he might have a wee bit of bias.

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.

My goodness, look at the natives and their strange customs. Let me take you to the next room, where we see some shrunken heads.

And yet, in spite of the fact that evolution is taught in American public schools, it faces deep-rooted resistance. Most of us, apparently, just aren’t buying. That’s a fact — and a good context for an article on “Creation.” It’s almost irrelevant that this kind of journalism plays into all sorts of cultural stereotypes about Europeans and Americans. What’s important is seeking out the facts, and getting a range of opinions to illuminate them.

Photo of Annie Darwin’s grave from Wikimedia Commons: “A dear and good child”

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  • Roberto

    I have a different theory for the lack of distributorship: it sounds boring. Well, it sounds interesting to me but I’m a Christian who has no real problems with Darwin (as opposed to some Darwinists, so I’d be interested in their depiction of his inner conflicts.

    But get real: there’s a limited market in the USA for talky, idea-driven imports and we’re in a recession. The number of movies and scripted TV shows being produced is way down and unless the import is about a hunky eternally-adolescent vampire, there’s no market for it, period, no matter what it’s about.

    People will be able to see this flick the same way they see other imports: on DVD/Blu-Ray. That’s how I get to see every foreign film I see and I see quite a few. If the film is any good someone will distribute the DVD in the U.S.

  • Jerry

    What you said about movies depicting sin in explicit, approving detail being perfectly acceptable to distributors but not a movie about Darwin is a sad reflection on America from more than one perspective. I agree there’s something a bit odd because certainly someone should be willing to distribute the movie. So I wish we had some more facts about what is going on.

    Is it really cowardice on the part of distributors as has been implied by the tone of the articles? Or is it, as Roberto suggested, at least somewhat an economic decision based on a presumed limited audience?

  • Stoo

    I think the fact that it’s a minor arthouse film, apart from an Ooh Controversial one, could be significant. Then again other countries seem happy with this minor arthouse film.

    That second quoted section doesn’t look so bad to me. The telegraph is a british paper primarily for british audiences. America outside of the coastal cities is much more religious than us. Matter of perspective.

  • Roberto

    Or is it, as Roberto suggested, at least somewhat an economic decision based on a presumed limited audience?

    It’s not either/or. As I said, these are tough times for the movie business — lots of very good, even great, small and foreign films do not get distribution deals in the U.S. The market for these kinds of films, even in the best of times, is small. (There are only so many art houses and, to repeat myself, a lot of good films out there.) The best they can hope for is the film festival circuit.

    We’ve probably only heard about “Creation” because it stars a former Oscar-winner. Does the subject matter have something to do with its failure to secure distribution? Probably as in “on top of all that it’s about Charles Darwin.” I don’t “cowardice” is the right word. I think that it’s the kind of excess caution you get when times are really tough.

  • Julia

    according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution

    I wonder what kind of question was asked. I find 39% really hard to believe.

    And being religious doesn’t automatically equal disagreeing with the theory of evolution or natural selection. The writer seems to think that.

    Maybe the movie’s writer went overboard on the not beieving in God any more after his daughter’s death busines. I don’t recall Darwin being aggressively atheistic, but maybe the movie is. That would ruffle some feathers.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    This is a hard story to pitch to an editor, in part because there’s no local angle, and in part because of the unknowns. For all we know, the movie could be mediocre, or the filmmakers may want too much money from the distributor – and it may be a difficult film to market. Then there’s the Fireproof factor– that movie, with a $500,000 budget, grossed 33 million– Religulous by contrast, with 2.5 million budget, grossed around 13 million. So maybe distributors think there’s not an audience for a Darwin pic

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Could also be that right now, with the economy in the tank, fun escapist popcorn films are the hot trend – Transformers2 made 400 million at the box office and there’s not much interest in a biopic of an angst ridden, earnest scientist.

  • Martha

    Yes, I tend to agree that it’s probably a case of “Hmmm – minor foreign-made firm with no gripping feel-good hook like the abolition of slavery (as in “Wilberforce”) or sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll angle (because let’s face it – five years at sea on a ship collecting botanical specimens? Most exciting thing that happened is not giant squid attacks or tremendous storms at sea nearly capsizing vessel or cannibal natives trying to eat them but rather “Captain – I’ve found variations in the sizes of finches’ beaks on different islands!”?)

    Yeah – not seeing great amount of audience appeal in the 16-25 year old male demographic for that one :-)

    Of course, not being able to sell to the largest English-speaking market for one’s film is not good news, so it’s probably a case of the producer covering his – reputation, let us say – by claiming “Hey, it’s not that I couldn’t make a sure box-office draw, it’s that the Yanks aren’t sophisticated enough to appreciate it!”

  • Stoo

    So if it’s such a boring prospect, why has it sold in the rest of the world?

    And films like this aren’t meant to be competing with robots punching each other in the first place.

  • Jerry

    I wonder what kind of question was asked. I find 39% really hard to believe.

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/114544/Darwin-Birthday-Believe-Evolution.aspx is the poll. The question is pretty straight-forward but I wonder what people assume evolution really says. Would they correctly describe what evolution is or assume that it an atheistic theory, for example? At least one of the questions illustrates how ignorant many Americans really are:

    The results show that 55% of Americans can correctly name evolution (or another term closely associated with evolution, such as natural selection) when asked with which theory they associate Darwin.

  • Chris Bolinger

    But in the US, outside of New York and LA, religion rules.

    Wild guess: he’s never been in the U.S. outside of New York and L.A.

  • http://goodintentionsblog.com Bob Smietana

    I’ve always hated that question: “Do you, personally, believe in the theory of evolution, do you not believe in evolution, or don’t you have an opinion either way?”

    “Believe” is the wrong word there. Would love to see Gallup substitute “understand” or “accept” instead

  • dalea

    Andrew Sullivan and DailyKos have been all over this story. It appears to be a very high end British biography, from the preview well acted and beautifully filmed. Part of me suspects that this story is part of the publicity campaign for the film. When the story gets legs and runs all over the world, Darwin will find a US distributor. Then the film will open with crowds of Evangelical Christians protesting, which will publicize it even more. You can’t buy this sort of publicity.

  • Bern

    A matter of perspective indeed: story sounds like a bid to get noticed on the part of the producers and pump some mileage out of (grossly overstated) divisions in the religious sensibilities of Americans. (Controversy, like sex, sells.) I agree it’s the economics, stupid. The Passion of the Christ this ain’t.

  • Julia

    I’ve always hated that question: “Do you, personally, believe in the theory of evolution, do you not believe in evolution, or don’t you have an opinion either way?”

    “Believe” is the wrong word there. Would love to see Gallup substitute “understand” or “accept” instead

    Amen, amen, amen.

    For some time now, there has been a faulty equivalence of “believe/feel” and “think/agree/understand/accept”.

    We’ve been therapized to death. I think the therapy sessions where the counselor keeps repeating “but how do you feel about that?” has resulted in “feeling” over-kill that was never intended. There’s this pressure to speak as if on Oprah’s couch all the time.

    The blurring of the line between “beliefs” and “thinking” makes it difficult to have debates, because everyone is entitled to their beliefs/feelings since they are generally not thought to require a rational basis.

    Imprecise language can have big consequences.

  • Dave

    I think the problem is a combination of low box office and high controversy. A picket line in front of the theater is great if it draws people in to see what the fuss is about. If the fuss is about a biopic of a 19th Century biologist, the picket line could leave a sour taste in consumer’s mouths for subsequent offerings.

    I agree that the journalistic dichotomy of “religious” and “accepts evolution” is nonsense. I am both.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    The blogger and sci-fi writer John Scalzi has a pretty good take on this:

    The major US studios are no longer really tuned to distribute films like this in any event. Maybe if Charles Darwin were played by Will Smith, was a gun-toting robot sent back from the future to learn how to love, and to kill the crap out of the alien baby eaters cleverly disguised as Galapagos tortoises, and then some way were contrived for Jennifer Connelly to expose her breasts to RoboDarwin two-thirds of the way through the film, and there were explosions and lasers and stunt men flying 150 feet into the air, then we might be talking wide-release from a modern major studio. Otherwise, you know, not so much.

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