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Despite Numerous Roadblocks, ‘Unplanned’ Movie Wildly Outperformed Expectations


Predicting the box office returns of new theatrical releases is an inexact science. There are all manner of new measurements that industry analysts can use to gauge performance—advance ticket sales, fan interest on internet platforms, web traffic on film monitoring sites, and cast social media outreach can all be tabulated. One new data point is measuring the ratio of views to shares of the movie trailer.

Despite all of these methods, it’s still common for a title to underperform or become a hit in defiance of all the pre-release metrics. Last Friday, “Unplanned” debuted. Expectations were low. Some thought it might land in the top ten for the weekend, then quietly fade away in the following weeks.

Something else happened. The drama is centered around Abby Johnson, who was once one of the youngest directors in Planned Parenthood. After being brought into an operating room to witness an abortion procedure, Johnson found herself watching on a sonogram as the “clump of cells” tried to evade the intrusive implements that led to ending what was obviously a human life.

This embryonic epiphany transformed Johnson, who is now an outspoken proponent for the unborn. Curiously, the entertainment industry wanted to smother her voice, and the movie.

Predicting a Stacked Deck

The industry experts can hardly be faulted for downcast predictions. Early prognostications for the movie were always in the single-digits range, and as the weeks approached those numbers were scaled down further. By the time of the release date, predictions were no higher than $3 million for the weekend.

“Unplanned” originated from Pure Flix, a faith-based distribution company that releases films for the Christian audience. The film was made on a small budget, features no major Hollywood celebrities, and was premiering on barely more than 1,000 screens (about one-third to one-quarter of the amount of a major wide release title). This would normally place a film in the lower reaches of the box office list. But other market forces made the estimates plunge.

The marketing team for “Unplanned” began to run into unforeseen challenges. While setting up commercials, Fox News was seen as a natural move, but when it came time to place ads on other cable networks, the film met a blockade.

Lifetime channel owner A&E Networks declared “Unplanned” commercials could not run because they were centered on offensive or sensitive content. A similar response was given by the Discovery Channel syndicate, which included The Food Network, the Travel Channel, HGTV, and others. Also declining were NBC-owned USA Network, and the Hallmark Channel. One of the movie’s marketers noticed, however, the Lifetime network had pushed an interview with Scarlett Johansson where the actress promoted Planned Parenthood.

The movie ran into another unpredicted challenge: The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) classified the film as having offensive content and placed an R rating on it. This led to other outlets resisting the promotions. “Unplanned” was unable to run commercials on most Christian radio stations, because those normally have a policy against R-rated content.

This rating from the MPAA also carries a crude irony. Anyone under the age of 18 cannot see this anti-abortion film without a parent present. However, in many states, a girl as young as 15 years old can have an abortion performed without parental notification. Anyone explaining how this makes sense has a better grasp of paradox than myself.

Frustrated in numerous areas, the team had to resort to alternative outlets of promotion. The marketers attended the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) one month ago and held a screening for attendees. Glenn Beck was asked to see the film. He initially resisted, stating that many faith-based movies were subpar and he hated giving his honest assessment to the production team. He was compelled to actually attend a screening, however, and afterward became an enthusiastic booster.

Turnout Is Fair Play

In spite of all of these challenges tossed at this title, “Unplanned” managed to draw a significant audience. When the weekend totals came in, “Unplanned” managed to earn more than double the projections, totaling $6.11 million. That is still a low figure by large-scale studio release standards, but it was enough to have the film land in the top five for the weekend. It was a strong enough performer that the per-screen average was the third best of the entire field, out-dueling “Captain Marvel” in that statistic.

Even through the successful weekend, the movie fought for air. On Twitter, the account for the film, @UnplannedMovie, was taken down without any notification of why. After some outcry and reaching out to management the account was reinstated, albeit with tens of thousands of followers quietly removed. Then another curiosity was discovered with the account.

Dana Loesch, and numerous others, say they tried to follow the account only to discover they are showing as “unfollowed” moments later. Richard Grenell shows what is happening.

But these questionable actions on the account have not prevented a rather stark outcome. The @UnplannedMovie account managed to achieve having more followers than that of Planned Parenthood. Given the head start the infant abattoir has on the publishing platform, this is a jarring accomplishment.

One other bit of success has been announced for the movie. As it was initially expected to only last in theaters for one or two more weeks, last weekend’s success means the movie will be expanding its release. This weekend, the film will be showing on 1,700 screens.