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The Mass Media Wars Surrounding the ‘Unplanned’ Movie on Abortion

By Terry Mattingly

Photo courtesy of frc.org.

If “Unplanned” was an ordinary movie, its creators would be busy right now studying second-week box office numbers while starting negotiations with the digital giants that stream products to the masses.

But this has never been an ordinary movie, which is why it’s an important test case for religious believers trying to bend Hollywood’s unwritten rules about religion and hot-button moral issues.

Backed by a company called Pure Flix, “Unplanned” was filmed in secret in Oklahoma, using the code name “Redeemed” in an attempt to postpone controversy. The filmmakers behind “God’s Not Dead” and similar Christian-market projects had a $6 million budget for their take on the story of Abby Johnson, a young Planned Parenthood executive who in 2009 quit to join the protestors outside her own clinic in Bryan, Texas.

Mainstream entertainment’s powers that be have made it clear that the images and themes in “Unplanned” are not acceptable, said Cary Solomon, who wrote and directed the film with Chuck Konzelman.

“We offered them money for TV advertising and they turned us down. Now Netflix doesn’t want us,” said Solomon, earlier this week. “We’ve made a good movie and people want to see it. … We’ll be getting close to $20 million at the box office in another week or so. Why won’t some of these companies let people see our movie?”

Most of the “Unplanned” press coverage has focused on the marketplace controversies swirling around the film, as opposed to the film itself. One of the best summaries of the fine details in the drama about this drama ran as a column in The Washington Post.

“They gave the movie an “R” rating — which meant the trailer could only run before R-rated movies and no one younger than 17 under could see it without a parent’s permission,” noted Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. “A half-dozen major music labels refused producers’ requests to license music for the film. Many major television networks except Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network refused to run ads promoting it. Then, curiously, the movie’s Twitter account was suspended through no fault of its own during opening weekend. … Tens of thousands of users (myself included) mysteriously found themselves involuntarily removed from the account’s followers and/or unable to follow it in the first place.

“Get the feeling someone doesn’t want you to see Unplanned?”

Out of all these complications, the Motion Picture Association of America’s decision to pin an R-rating on “Unplanned” — citing “some disturbing/bloody images” — may have been the most crucial blow.

The film’s images are disturbing, including material based on Johnson’s testimony about her experiences during two abortions of her own, including a bloody, frightening, cathartic scene after she took morning-after pills to end a crisis pregnancy. In addition to drawing from Johnson’s 2011 memoir — also called “Unplanned” — the filmmakers received technical advice from a doctor who used to perform abortions.

The R-rating was based on “violence, blood and scary scenes,” noted Solomon. However, the visuals in “Unplanned” are milder than those in “your typical CSI show” on television “and there are slasher films that end up with PG-13 ratings,” despite violent images that are far more vivid.

The R-rating, he said, was “specifically done in order to keep evangelicals and Mormons and other conservative parents from going to see this — because they know these conservatives don’t want to see R-rated movies. … They’re using the virtues of the Christian market as a way to hurt our movie.”

Ironically, several “Unplanned” scenes stress the good motives of some Planned Parenthood works, contrasting them with the materialistic, commercial interests of others. Meanwhile, the sexist, abusive language of some anti-abortion demonstrators also ended up on screen. That’s all part of Johnson’s story.

The movie “contrasts harmful protesting with the incredible power of prayer and consistent presence. When Abby escaped Planned Parenthood, she ran directly to the Human Coalition, people she met day after day after day outside of her clinic,” noted John Stonestreet, in a BreakPoint radio commentary.

At the same time, this movie “earned its R rating because it showed the realities of both surgical and medical abortions. See it for yourself if you still think this is about ‘politics,’ and not about the ending of innocent human life.”

Terry Mattingly (tmatt.net) leads GetReligion.org and is Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

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