Filmmakers usually seek a lot of fanfare for their movies in the creation phase, but the team behind the pro-life feature “Unplanned” undertook a stealth production to shield the project from protests and negative publicity.
“We wanted to be very much out of the public eye,” said co-writer/co-director Chuck Konzelman.
Based on the life of former Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson, “Unplanned” follows her journey from pro-choice advocate to abortion critic. It opens nationwide on March 29 and stars Ashley Bratcher, of 2015’s sleeper hit “War Room,” as Mrs. Johnson.
The project gathered some obvious allies, including 40 Days for Life, a pro-life group featured prominently in both Mrs. Johnson’s personal journey and the film’s narrative.
It also attracted MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell: The Christian entrepreneur not only cut a $1 million check to fund the feature but also shot an “Unplanned” cameo that arrives late in the movie.
As part of its low-key roll-out, “Unplanned” scored early screenings at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor, Maryland, last month and at the Heritage Foundation conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., this month.
The filmmakers shot the movie in Oklahoma and specifically avoided the state’s biggest metro regions. What’s more, the cast and crew were asked not to share any images of or information about the film on social media, Mr. Konzelman said.
(The upcoming “Roe v. Wade” film, which also packs a pro-life message, attempted the same quiet production as “Unplanned.” But news about it dribbled out, creating complications for the production such as conflicts over shooting locations.)
“We didn’t want any distractions,” Mr. Konzelman said.
“Unplanned” endured a potential hit earlier this year, when it received an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board. The film has no nudity, violence or mature language, but the board insisted that several abortion scenes warranted the rating.
The overwhelmingly majority of faith-based films receive a PG or PG-13 rating.
A source the film’s marketing efforts said the R rating restricted some of the traditional paths for faith-based films to reach the masses. Previous movies like last year’s sleeper “I Can Only Imagine,” rated PG, relied on a combination of church, ministries and like-minded organizations to spread its tale of spiritual redemption.
The MPAA decision spurred an open letter from 29 signees, including Oscar-winning producer Gerald Molen (“Schindler’s List”), actor Kevin Sorbo (TV’s “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys”), “The Godfather Part II” producer Gray Frederickson, legendary crooner Pat Boone and Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece.
“It was given the R rating for political reasons, unless Hollywood is willing to admit that the 20-second scene they had objection to is only disturbing because it reflects the killing of a child,” said Blaze TV founder Glenn Beck, a letter signee.
Mr. Beck adds that the film is “may be one of the most important movies of the age.” It’s why he’s done more than simply interview the filmmakers for his syndicated radio show. He’s also hosting several “Unplanned” showings March 29 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“I don’t like movies that are preachy — left, right or center. This movie is just a good movie, as well,” Mr. Beck said.
Mr. Konzelman says Mrs. Johnson’s husband put a positive spin on the ratings decision. Now, parents and children will have to see the film together and, later, have “the talk” about abortion, the director says.
The road to the big screen still won’t be easy for “Unplanned.” The film lacks a bankable star, besides its R-rating woes. Spreading the word about the film via traditional outlets have proven difficult. Several prominent TV networks, including The Hallmark Channel, Up TV, and Lifetime and the Lifetime Movie Network, refused to air spots for the feature.
The film’s musical selections similarly suffered. Six major music publishers refused to allow their songs for the soundtrack, some citing the contentious nature of the story. The production team hoped to include hits like Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” but were rejected by the publisher holding the rights to the ’80s classic.
Miss Bratcher ran into an unrelated challenge after accepting the leading role. She says couldn’t reconcile how Mrs. Johnson once worked tirelessly for an abortion provider like Planned Parenthood, so she reached out to Mrs. Johnson for tips.
“What I learned from those conversations was she’s not really changed [since then]. She thought she was helping women. It’s always her primary goal. She’s very passionate about it,” the actress said.
“Unplanned” isn’t the first pro-life film to face stiff industry headwinds. The creative team behind “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer,” the 2018 drama about abortionist Kermit Gosnell’s ghastly practice, complained that media outlets mostly ignored their film. The initial number of film reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, the internet’s most prominent review aggregator, totaled fewer than 10 critiques during the film’s opening weekend.
Miss Bratcher suggests the strong presale figures for “Unplanned” will force a different outcome.
“I don’t think the liberal media will have a choice but to acknowledge us,” Miss Bratcher said.
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