After having its TV spots shut out by my most mainstream cable networks and its Twitter account frozen for two-three hours yesterday, PureFlix’s anti-abortion feature Unplanned, which was slapped with an R rating by the MPAA, opened to $6.1M at 1,059 theaters, making it the second-best opening for the faith-based studio’s self-distributed titles after God’s Not Dead 2 ($7.6M).
While not a huge win by major studio standards, for the indie label which produced the $5M-$6M with co-financer Mike Lindell (the inventor of MyPillow), it’s an achievement, given the controversy the pic has weathered. Arguably, there hasn’t be an R-rated, faith-based movie since Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ. Typically, faith-based movies do 2-3 times their domestic box office in TV and home ancillaries. It’s Lent, so it wouldn’t be a shocker if Unplanned legs out. God’s Not Dead, which PureFlix released through FreeStyle, made a 6.6x multiple off its $9.2M opening for a final domestic take of $60.7M.
Directed and written by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, Unplanned is based on the true story of Abby Johnson, who was one of the youngest Planned Parenthood directors in the US. After she is asked to assist in an abortion at thirteen weeks gestation, she instead resigned and became a pro-life activist.
And like Passion of the Christ, the faith-based community of Evangelical pastors, and even the Roman Catholic community, propped and promoted this pic to its flocks, fueling $1.5M in advance ticket sales prior to Unplanned‘s weekend opening. Churches literally bought-out theaters, and the pic earned an A+ CinemaScore from its faith-based moviegoers. Social media analyst RelishMix noted that the real-life Johnson was out and about promoting the film and that was seeping into social.
Controversy has been the best means of publicity for the film, not just with its MPAA rating, but also headlines about Unplanned having its TV spots rejected by most cable networks like Lifetime, Travel Channel, and Food Network, though getting airtime with right-wing channel Fox News –a big supporter of the film, running segments on it– and also faith-based channels like TBN. The film made national news last year when lead actress Ashley Bratcher revealed that her mother had scheduled an abortion, changed her mind at the last moment, left the abortion clinic, and gave birth to her. Evangelists like Franklin Graham were key in spreading the word of mouth, in addition to a letter signed by 29 national pastors endorsing the film. While there was news that Christian radio was rejecting spots for Unplanned, PureFlix CEO Michael Scott says that KLOVE eventually came around. Overall, like most faith-based movies, a grassroots win in marketing.
In regards to the pic’s release occurring around the time that the strictest state abortion law is on the desk of Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp, aka “The Heartbeat Bill”, Scott says such timing “was happenstance.” After Alyssa Milano’s guest column earlier this week calling for Hollywood to boycott film/TV production in Georgia over the Heartbeat Bill, Unplanned actress Ashley Bratcher rebutted back to Milano on Deadline with her pro-life stance, emphasizing how her “life was spared on an abortion table.”
Scott told Deadline that in regards to Unplanned’s Twitter handle being shutdown yesterday, “these things happen” when there’s content that’s political. But that incident, again, generated word of mouth.
“We are very happy for the success of this film,” said PureFlix CEO Michael Scott in a statement. “To bring the story of Abby Johnson to audiences and have them show up in such large numbers shows how the topic of abortion is so important to bring to audiences. We hope that those on both sides of the debate will see Unplanned and begin to have their own dialogue. This film can be that spark to bring more hearts and minds to understanding the value of life.”