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How movies like 'Unplanned' and 'Gosnell' make money without movie critics

Gary Thompson, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Entertainment News

On Friday, President Donald Trump was scheduled to view the 2018 movie "Gosnell: The Trial of America's Biggest Serial Killer."

"Gosnell" didn't screen in advance for movie critics. And it didn't really need to. The movie, based on the 2013 conviction of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell for the murder of three babies who a jury found were born alive during illegal late-term abortions, had a built-in fan base of 30,000 people who contributed to its Indiegogo campaign.

While it wasn't crowdfunded like "Gosnell," the anti-abortion film "Unplanned" courted the same audiences when it arrived in theaters on March 29. Based on the memoir of Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who became an anti-abortion activist, the movie made $6 million in its opening weekend on 1,000 screens across the country. To put that in perspective, the Taraji P. Henson-starring "Best of Enemies," which hit theaters last week, opened on 1,700 screens and made $4 million. A blockbuster, like an entry into the "Avengers" series, will open on more than 4,000 screens.

That's a pretty good opening footprint for "Unplanned," but it won't surprise people who are plugged into social media groups that track the progress and release of such faith-based movies, circumventing traditional publicity channels. "Gosnell," in addition to its crowdfunding campaign, was heavily marketed on social media before its release, and kept its audience interested with an email newsletter directly from the filmmakers. Faith-based groups and churches raise money for trips to screenings of "Unplanned." For such groups, "Unplanned" is as big a movie event as "Avengers: Endgame" is for general audiences.

"Unplanned" received an R rating from the MPAA for graphic depictions of surgical and drug-induced abortion procedures, which makes it harder to market to religious groups. Some television networks deemed "Unplanned" to be political and turned away advertising on that basis, and Twitter suspended for one hour the "Unplanned" account after mistakenly linking it to banned accounts (Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump Jr. came to the movie's defense on their own Twitter accounts).

The movie rolled on, though, and expanded by more than 400 theaters in its second weekend, on its way to making $12.5 million so far.

 

It is sometimes determined by distributors that reviews are unnecessary and sometimes a hindrance to box office performance. And it's not just faith-based movies that follow this strategy. "Holmes & Watson," the Will Ferrell-John C. Reilly reunion that opened around last Christmas, avoided the critical gauntlet -- probably for the best, as it has an 11 percent on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes. Tyler Perry is famous for excluding press from his "Madea" movies, and he's none the worse for wear. "Tyler Perry's A Madea Family Funeral," reportedly the last "Madea" movie, has made $72 million domestically since it opened March 1.

But the majority of movies still actively court critical interest, including other faith-based movies. "Breakthrough," a faith-based movie that opens Wednesday and stars "This Is Us"' Chrissy Metz, did screen for critics, although it conflicted with another screening and I could not attend.

"Unplanned" didn't do that. Apart from some fleeting mentions in the trade papers, the film's distributors gave critics no advance notice of the release. This week, I reached out to the "Unplanned" distributor to ask about why screenings weren't offered to critics, but did not hear back as of this writing.

I attended a showing Thursday night at United Artists King of Prussia, where I was joined by about a dozen other patrons. It wasn't media coverage that drew them to the showing. Jeff Harvey, who was there with his wife, Breanna, said he found out about the movie via social media and his church. "It's pretty well known throughout the Christian community," he said.

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