Unplanned is a film that boasts no major stars, has received mostly poor ratings, and has been called “a piece of hate propaganda” against women and abortion providers by Joyce Arthur of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.
Still, the movie, based on the memoir by Abby Johnson, a former Texas Planned Parenthood staffer-turned-anti-abortion activist, has opened in 56 theatres across Canada. A film shot for a modest $6 million US is being shown on giant screens alongside Toy Story 4 and Spider-Man: Far from Home, a feat most makers of Canadian films shot on a similar budget could only dream of.
On the film’s opening weekend, women’s and pro-choice groups are planning demonstrations around the country, while some church groups and anti-abortion groups are calling for outings to watch it.
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But there’s one aspect of the film that’s difficult to dispute: its producers’ savvy in getting such wide distribution. Martin Katz, a veteran Canadian film and TV producer and the chair of the Canadian Academy of Film and Television, calls the film’s distribution “surprising.”
“My understanding is that it’s quite terrible, but there are a lot of terrible films that get released,” said Katz.
“What I think is drastic is that there’s a lot of great Canadian films that don’t get released, if they do get released, they get released on a screen or five screens or six screens, not [almost] 60 screens.”
Unplanned’s road to the theatres followed a careful strategy of galvanizing its supporters, while working to appease the requirements of the Canadian theatre distribution system and, possibly, promising hefty box office returns based on its success in the United States.
Finding the distributor
In May, the film had a special screening in front of 2,800 people at Edmonton Expo. Faytene Grasseschi, a faith-based TV host who lives in Ontario, was among them.
“It’s compassionate, it’s well done, it’s Abby’s story but it’s also giving Canadians an opportunity to understand what they’re actually supporting when they say that they’re pro-choice,” said Grasseschi.
She felt more Canadians needed to see it.
At the time, Cineplex, the chain that owns 80 per cent of theatres in Canada, had not yet signed on to screen Unplanned. The chain’s spokesperson said it was because the film had not yet secured a Canadian distributor: a person or company that represents the film’s producers to get it into theatres, from delivering rolls or digital prints of the film, to providing marketing material, to choosing locations where the film is most likely to perform well.
Grasseschi took part in organizing a petition to boycott the theatre giant’s other offerings if it refused to screen Unplanned. According to Grasseschi, 10,000 people signed the petition within days, with “very minimal marketing.”
Meanwhile, the film’s American producers scrambled to find a Canadian distributor. Then B.J. McKelvie stepped in.
“They asked, ‘Are you able to distribute this movie?’ And I said, ‘Certainly,'” said McKelvie in a CBC News interview from his home in Fredericton. “It lined up with my values and my faith.”
The New Brunswick-based pastor has a strong interest in entertainment, with a side career as a musician and his own movie booking company, Cinedicom. As a booking agent, he is usually hired by local theatres to deal with distributors and get them big Hollywood blockbusters. While he provided the regional know-how, the film’s American producers footed the bill.
“I figured this would do well in some of the smaller, independent theatres because we have the screens and at this time of year we need product. And certainly there were screens in the larger theatres, too.”
‘Disturbing content and gory scenes’
With a Canadian distributor on board, Cineplex agreed to show the film in 14 locations. And detractors of the film began to voice their opinions.
Facing criticism from pro-choice Canadians, the theatre chain’s CEO Ellis Jacob wrote in an open letter that he saw it as a matter of freedom of expression, and that “a country that censors content, opinions and points of view because they are different from our own is not a country that any of us want to live in.”
Jacob said that determining whether the film is appropriate for audiences and setting age parameters falls to provincial film classification boards. Landmark Cinemas, which is showingUnplanned in seven locations, expressed similar sentiments in an email.
But Karynn Austin, chair of Ontario Film Review Board, said her organization is not an arbiter of taste. In Ontario, as in most other provinces, Unplanned got the rating of 14-A, for “disturbing content and gory scenes.”
“We classified the film based on the same guidelines as any other film: language, sex and nudity, violence and psychological impact,” said Austin, noting that she watched the film with her classifiers, something she doesn’t normally do, realizing it would be controversial.
What about some people’s view that the film is anti-abortion propaganda, not art?
“We don’t classify something as propaganda,” says Austin. “It’s not our job as classifiers to ban or protect our audience, it’s our job to inform.” Austin adds that the only exception would be made in cases where the film clearly violated the Criminal Code.
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The future of Unplanned
But even with a distributor found and rating obtained, Unplanned’s success in securing several dozen theatres across the country (Cineplex, Landmark, Quebec’s Cinema Guzzo, and many independents) is impressive.
Katz says “Traditionally, a distributor entices an exhibitor with a movie based on reviews, and advance notice, and how much promotion is being done.” But it’s tough to see how Unplanned could do any of those things, given that most major U.S. networks refused to carry advertising spots for the movie, and reviews in most major publications have been poor.
What the movie did have going for it was a promise of delivering a limited but devoted audience that yearns to see its views reflected.
“It is interesting; when you look at the critics’ reviews of this movie, they are all terrible. There are lots of online reviews of this movie that are positive,” says Katz. Indeed, on RottenTomatoes.com, which aggregates critics’ and audience’s opinions, critics’ score for the movie is 48 per cent, but 4,700 audience members who viewed it in the U.S. gave it 91 per cent.
In the U.S., the movie surprised industry observers when it became the fifth-most-watched film on its opening weekend. Its overall box office gross in the U.S. so far has been $18 million.
Whether the film will achieve similar success in Canada, despite the planned protests, will become clearer in a week.