The longer-than-anyone-expected-or-even-thought-remotely-possible reign of Ben Stein's anti-evolution screed Expelled: No Intelligence Required atop the year's documentary box office is nearing its end, we hear. And naturally, it's the heathens knocking it down: After outlasting withering reviews and a desperate legal broadside by Yoko Ono, Expelled's $7.6 million gross is expected to succumb this weekend to Bill Maher's godless hit Religulous — itself a $7 million earner in two weeks of release. But while Expelled may lose the ticket battle, is it still the winner in the culture war?You could make an argument either way (and believe us — people are), but Lionsgate never left much doubt that it would obtain the top-doc spot sooner or later. Yet while it's never been on more than half as many screens as Expelled — 568 to 1,062 — Religulous had the compounded advantages of a Toronto Film Fest launch, Maher tearing up Sherri Shepherd and anyone who would sit still for him on national TV, aggressive, conspicuous marketing, and a furtive NYC/LA residency to help qualify for its forthcoming Oscar nod. In the end, all that topping Expelled means this weekend is that Lionsgate's $3 million diatribe might break even earlier than expected. Expelled's budget was about the same, but stunned observers by finishing in the top 10 its opening weekend with little more than a grassroots push by the marketers who brought you The Passion of the Christ and other Christian-themed hits. Among them, Kirk Cameron's Fireproof carried the baton into fall with $17.2 million in less than three weeks. All due respect to Maher and Co., but that might be the long-term business to be in during bleak industry patches like this. Just avoid chihuahuas — you can't lose.
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