Wednesday, January 28, 2015

2014 Hollywood and Faith – Hit and Miss at the Box Office

Entertainment is a very tricky business. The viewing public has finicky tastes and sometimes the best-funded films flop. Other times sleeper films capture the public’s imagination and become blockbusters. There is no one set formulae for film making success and Hollywood, it appears, seems to be perennially trying to target market films more than ever.

Based on domestic box office receipts none of the biblical blockbuster films made heavily with special effects sustained any real economic value for the studios that made these wide release films in 2014.

Big Production = Big Domestic Flops

The film Noah, produced by Regency Entertainment and which stars Russell Crowe, only earned 101 million domestically on a 125 million dollar production budget.

Worse yet in terms of box office was the film, Exodus: God and Kings, produced by 20th Century Fox and stars Christian Bale. That film earned 64 million on a 188 million dollar budget.

Each of these films did better internationally but as it appears not because of the subject matter of the movies but because international audiences seem to be struck by their intense special effects.

Medium Production Costs = Poor to Mediocre Domestic Reception

The reboot of the Left Behind films based on the books with the same name and starring Nicholas Gage, apparently cost more than 20 million dollars to produce but brought in only 14 million domestically. Internationally the film took in only another 5 million dollars.

Another Fox entry was Son of God. This film cost about 22 million to produce but had a domestic win of 59 million and another 8 million overseas. Not great numbers when you factor in additional marketing costs and having to pay theater owners. So here too any profits are razors edge.

Small Production + Targeted Stories = Box Office Success

The real winners were Sony Pictures release of Heaven is for Real.* The film is reported to have cost 12 million but made 91 million domestically and another 9 million on the international market. And Freestyle Releasing’s God’s Not Dead was the big winner. The film cost 2 million to make but took in 60 million domestically and another 1 million internationally.

Ironically, the revenue generation is the opposite of the Noah and Exodus films. That I surmise is because of the intimate Evangelical nature of the Heaven and GND films. They both play to a target much better in the U.S. than outside of it.

Swinging for the Fences

Of course, if you’re swinging for the fences or trying to set a biblical Hollywood high watermark you’ll have to beat the incredibly violent and masochistic Passion of the Christ. It’s been reported that if you’re a Christian who enjoys flagellation and torture then this is THE film to watch.

Passion was produced and directed by Mel Gibson, a man whose anti-Semitic remarks make him a pariah in Hollywood. The film cost 30 million to make but it has made more than 613 million dollars. Proving again that neither talent nor kindness has anything to do with filmmaking and target marketing. I’m sure Mr. Gibson laughs all the way to the bank although he hasn’t acted in a successful film for years now.

Secular-Themed Films Fair Well But Not Always

2013’s Paul is about a space alien (voiced by Seth Rogen) who crash lands on Earth and is held captive by the U.S. government. The film stars British actors Nick Frost and Simon Pegg (both atheists in real life) and has made about 100 million. It cost about 40 million to produce.

The film Contact, inspired by Carl Sagan’s book of the same name and starring Jodie Foster, cost about 90 million to make (1997 dollars) and has taken in over 177 million dollars to date.

Ricky Gervais’ The Invention of Lying cost 17 million to make and has garnered almost 40 million from the domestic and international box office

The film Creation about the life and times of Charles Darwin, which is a really smart and sympathetic movie, cost 15 million and has only garnered $900,000 domestically and internationally.

Another freethinker-friendly film that missed the mark but is beautifully acted, directed and scripted is Agora. The film stars Rachel Weisz as 4th Century Egyptian mathematician Hypatia (who was murdered by a Christian mob) and cost 75 million but has only made 39 million at the box office to date.

Both Agora and Creation are really two intelligently made films that immediately make them impossible for many U.S. audiences for several reasons. 

They’re biopics and they’re historical in nature. They’re about skeptical foreigners. They’re about scientists and mathematicians. There are no robots, car chases, potty jokes, stolen merchandise or teen vampires. Nor are they mid-thirty-time-to-grow-up-but don’t-wanna themed films. 

*The competing book for the HIFR audience entitled, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, was written by a paraplegic child. The child admitted that he wrote about a death experience he never had just for attention. The book has been pulled from the shelves because it is, just like Heaven is for Real (although not admitted to) a hoax.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Whose God Wins?

Gov. Jindal: Knock, Knock America
According to Bobby Jindal, the Republican rising star and presidential hopeful, his god wins. But it's not just his god, it's the version of god which Evangelicals devote their lives and spirituality. A type of Christian god who commands adherents to make political choices that, if left unchecked, certainly negatively impact our secular lives and secular laws.

Jindal's god winning means the following:
  • People can't marry who they love
  • People cannot have access to health care
  • People won't learn real science but rather will be taught science fiction
Governor Jindal was the keynote speaker for the recent American Family Association conference. An association labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a "hate group" based on statements and actions against fellow Americans in the LGBTQ community.

This whole belief about one god winning over let's say another delusional invisible being (sorry Judaism, Islam, Hindus and the other 2,000 other gods worshipped on the planet) or heaven forbid no god (sorry atheists, humanists, freethinkers and their lot) means we're all losers. We're the outsiders. We're the ones who will be left behind not just after the magical belief in rapture but also during what would be a very scary President Jindal administration.

Jindal claims that his expression of religious belief not only serves as his personal philosophical compass but one which he would readily use to make decisions regarding how best to run the American federal government. Jindal states that the precedent for what would be his Commander-in-Chief faith based decision making goes back to our Founding Fathers. However, it is my opinion that this man's ignorance runs equally as deep as his religious faith. 

Has he ever read Franklin, Paine, Jefferson, Adams and Washington? Or read the thin (177 page) Jefferson Bible? Or the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli which states clearly and emphatically that, "The United States was not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."  And we should ask Jindal even if the American FF's were religious or at least Deists, where is the Christian (or any) god listed by name in the Declaration of Independence or Constitution, Articles of Confederation or other foundational documents? 

In fact the American FF's were wiser and more insightful than Governor Jindal. They knew what Jindal and his Evangelical ilk refuse to accept related to democracy. That the acceptance of one specific god to be claimed as a national deity leads to social tyranny, it is antithetical to democracy and leads to a theocratic state.  Exactly what the FF's wanted to avoid.

America, no matter how these people scream is a Christian nation was intended to be and is in fact a secular democracy. There is a Constitutional Amendment which demands the separation of state and church. You have a right to believe or not to believe. You have a right to be religious or spiritual or an atheist. You have a right to gather and pray or not to do either. But you do not have a right to oppress others by pushing your religious beliefs into the public square. 

New Greek PM Tsipras
All nations need a leader like the new Prime Minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras, who as an open nonbeliever took the oath of office secularly as an oath of conscience. He even told the leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church to stay home from his swearing in. Tsipras offered his cabinet the option to have the same secular oath rite or one hosted by a member of their faith. Offering the secular option instead of just a religious ritual is a total breath of fresh air. Let's home Tsipras can make secular democracy one of Greece's most important exports.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Another Smoking Gun – More Evidence of Our Complex Evolution

I love scientific discovery. In fact, I can write in absolutist terms that all science makes me happy. But it is the science related to human origins that truly brightens my day. Especially when new fossil or DNA evidence becomes widely distributed that either fills in gaps in our knowledge or bolsters and confirms what we already know to be accurate.

When research is widely shared it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Often, it will take years of experimentation, modeling, hypothesis review and study to accept data brought forward by researchers. This elongated process is actually very healthy. It’s healthy because it allows not only the discoverers of the evidence to examine what they’ve found but also gives those secondary or tertiary scientists, reviewers and editors the opportunity to look at the evidence to review, compare and accept or disprove findings.

Looking backwards at our evolutionary origins is a search for truth about our past, current and future humanity. It gives the past dignity. It honors rational ideas and those who thought them up. The tools of evolutionary science also free us from magical thoughts or special creation speculation. These are two ignoble and un-evidenced views of our place in the universe that are unequal and cannot stand as competing ideas as to how nature operates or how science works to uncover the scientific principles, laws and theories that inform our knowledge.

The journal Science is reporting on new data from researchers at the Max Planck Institute who partnered with anthropologists at universities in London and Vienna. Their new research suggests that early australopithecines (in this case A. afarensis) certainly had the fine motor dexterity and the ability to make hand tools.

The results of this new research are based on the detailed examination of australopithecine hand bones. The findings indicate afarensis had fine motor skills more closely related to modern humans than simians. The researchers specifically looked at trabeculae bone, the spongy internal structure within each bone that indicates how bone is shaped and manipulated over one’s lifetime. It appears our early hominid ancestor had human-like fine motor skills more advanced than our modern higher primate cousins, including the Great Apes.

Evidence from the Research
Knowing the hand shape, the cognitive brain power and overall morphological ability of afarensis related to its ability to cut and shape tools offers us deeper insight and further proof that our distant ancestors were tool making millions of years ago.

Even the most primitive tool use, like say a chimp cleaning a stick and jamming it into a termite mound to catch insects for food, or the cupping of leaves to collect rain water to drink, shows cognition and clear understanding of cause and effect. So as we shine a light on the early hominids the research increases our understanding of how the shaping of rocks, the building of rock shelters at uncovered habitation sites, and the later making and controlling of fire, just to name a few human inventions, were all necessary advents which directly lead to our current societies and world cultures.

Now I’m pretty sure that Australopithecus afarensis, with its long arms and small brain (+/- 450cc), would not cognitively understand things like the Internet (my bet Neanderthals would have no issue) but since they probably didn’t think much far ahead than perhaps the next day or two, we can and should be humbled by their trials and tribulations on the African plains. They were food for other animals, they died early, lived naked and perhaps partially in trees, and had no ability for language to communicate.

As pure luck would have it based on the fossil record and mDNA evidence, as the Australopithecines became extinct one line had speciated and their progeny would eventually lead to the genus, Homo. And after many competing dead-ends eventually to us.

Our species, and consequently each of us, have won the life lottery just by being born. But it is our ancestors who we have to thank for buying the tickets (through their genome) that allowed unconscious and undirected evolution to lead to our current, reasonably aware and oft conscious species.