When the crowd of moviegoers spotted Mark Cavaliere in his blue 40 Days for Life shirt, it was like they’d spotted a movie star on the street.
“Hey, that’s the same shirt from the movie!” he heard some of them exclaim.
“They couldn’t comprehend it,” said the executive director of the Southwest Coalition for Life with a chuckle.
He was just gathering his 40 Days for Life materials from the theater where his organization had hosted a screening of Unplanned, the movie based on pro-life advocate Abby Johnson’s book of the same name. The people awed by his shirt had been in a neighboring theater, watching the same movie.
“I passed out information to people leaving the general showing, as well,” said Cavaliere, whose organization has hosted more than half a dozen screenings of the film.
At each of those screenings, Cavaliere spoke to the audience before and after the film, telling them about the Coalition for Life and the 40 Days for Life campaign. “This 40-day prayer vigil you just saw [depicted in the movie], and the power of that prayer, is happening right now in our own backyard,” he told them. “This could be your story, just by signing up for an hour of prayer.”
And his presentations have been working. Typically, the Southwest Coalition for Life works with more than 600 volunteers during each 40 Days for Life campaign. The group is able to place volunteers in front of three abortion businesses, 7am-7pm, each day of the campaign.
Cavaliere is still working his way through all the cards of interested volunteers submitted to him at the Unplanned screenings his group hosted — but he’s already topped more than 100 new potential vigil participants and expects that number to more than double.
“With all the laws going on recently, with late-term abortion and infanticide laws — people are just fed up,” he said. “It’s finally a wake-up call.
“They want to do something. They just need a little bit of direction.”
By the Numbers
Independently made with a budget of $6 million, Unplanned officially opened March 29 in 1,059 theaters. Disney’s Dumbo, with a budget of $170 million, opened the same day, in roughly four times as many theaters.
The next day, Forbes ran a story headlined “Friday Box Office: ‘Dumbo’ Disappoints, ‘Unplanned’ Surprises and ‘Beach Bum’ Bombs.” On more than 4,000 screens, Dumbo brought in a little more than $15 million on opening day; Unplanned earned $2.72 million.
As of this writing, Unplanned remains No. 4 at the box office and has brought in more than $8.6 million (including nearly $900,000 in ticket sales Tuesday).
“Every single number is off the wall,” said Cary Solomon, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Chuck Konzelman.
An additional 457 theaters will be showing the film this weekend, but the duo — who are also the team behind God’s Not Dead and God’s Not Dead 2 — don’t expect the phenomenon to stop there.
“I think if we have a good weekend, we’ll do that again. We’ll go over 2,000 [theaters],” said Solomon.
Largely, the film’s early success has been achieved without benefit of coverage in the secular media, which has dismissed the film as merely “a faith-based film” — in other words, one that will not appeal to the general public — and pro-life “propaganda.”
Given the subject matter and a CGI depiction of an abortion, the film was rated R (no one under 17 admitted without a parent or guardian). Many in the pro-life community wondered why an underage girl can, in many states, obtain an abortion without parental consent … and yet would not be allowed to see a movie about abortion without being accompanied by a parent or guardian.
But now that R rating seems like a blessing. “It lent credibility to the movie,” said Konzelman. “It gave credibility to a movie that was being frozen out by mainstream media.”
It was also a big talking point that may have increased the film’s exposure before release.
An open letter signed by evangelical Protestant celebrities, including Alveda King, Mike Huckabee, singer/actor Pat Boone and actor Kevin Sorbo, pointed out that The Passion of the Christ also received an R rating — which, in the writers’ opinions, should in this case stand for “recommended.”
Archbishop Joseph Naumann, the head of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, wrote a commentary for The Wall Street Journal, “Hollywood Admits Abortion Is Violent,” in which he recommends the film “to all people of goodwill.”
“Unplanned wasn’t produced to shame women who have had abortions or to condemn those who perform them. It’s about redemption,” he wrote. “Perhaps Abby Johnson’s courage in coming forward will change our nation from one that embraces violent, R-rated solutions for unplanned pregnancies to one that sees each human life as a gift to be celebrated.”
When the film’s Twitter account was mysteriously suspended on opening day, and the social-media platform provided no reason for the suspension, that seemingly injurious action may have actually benefited the film, theorize the people behind the project.
Later on opening weekend, the Twitter account was restored … but when Twitter users clicked to follow the account, they were unable to complete the action. Both incidents got significant publicity from people frustrated that they could not follow the account — and ultimately may have resulted in even greater follower numbers.
On Friday, the @UnplannedMovie Twitter account had 7,000 followers. As of this writing, it has 348,698 followers; that’s more than Planned Parenthood, which has slightly over 260,000 Twitter followers.
“There was a passive-aggressive resistance toward any publicity for the film,” said Solomon, referring to — among other things — major networks’ rejection of the film’s ads. “All [Twitter] did was give us a wonderful story to back up that fact.”
Beyond the Numbers
The film’s real-life protagonist, Abby Johnson, has also been thrust into the spotlight because of the film’s success. Before the film’s release, she had 45,000 Twitter followers — a community she’d grown over a number of years. As of this writing, she has 113,634.
More importantly, she says she’s receiving about 150 messages a day across various platforms — social media, email and so on — from abortion workers seeking assistance from Johnson’s organization And Then There Were None to leave the industry. But, Johnson said, “Ninety percent of those messages are people saying, ‘I’m pro-life, I’ve been pro-life, but I’ve never been active in this movement. What can I do?’”
Before the release of Unplanned, some might have wondered if the film — which portrays Johnson’s journey from a Planned Parenthood employee of the year to one of the pro-life movement’s most vocal advocates — would simply preach to the choir. That is simply not the case, Johnson said.
“It’s awakened the choir!” she said. “It’s not just preaching to the choir: I feel like we’re teaching the choir how to sing.”
Shawn Carney, founder of 40 Days for Life and a key character in the cinematic adaptation, agrees.
“The ‘preaching to the choir’ argument is true if Unplanned makes $2 million opening weekend; but I think that myth was gone by midday Saturday,” he said. “What kind of ‘Christian movie’ makes nearly $1 million on a Tuesday?”
Konzelman and Solomon bought the film rights to Johnson’s book six years ago, and it has been a challenging journey to get funding, to get distribution and to get publicity for the project. But they are not surprised that the timing for the film’s release seems so providential, in the wake of New York’s aggressive late-term abortion legislation and resulting debate about infanticide of babies who have the temerity to survive the procedure.
“The timing of the movie was divine, for sure,” Carney said. “It’s not just bringing us new waves of volunteers. It’s bad for the abortion industry.”
“More than anything, the Unplanned movie has contributed to the desire for more and more people to continue to be out there after 40 Days for Life,” added Cavaliere. “We’ve never had so many people say, ‘We don’t want to stop.’
“If [abortion providers] are doing this, that we saw on the screen, full time, year-round … how can we be out here part time?”
Register correspondent Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.