The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Was ‘Unplanned’ a victim of media bias or an example of grievance-as-marketing?

Ashley Bratcher in “Unplanned.”
Ashley Bratcher in “Unplanned.” (Unplanned)

Have you heard of “Unplanned?”

The movie, about a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who quit after a change of heart about abortion, came out on March 29, to scant but mostly unfavorable reviews. The Washington Post included “Unplanned” in our column for family filmgoers, comprising reviews from the media and technology site Common Sense Media.

To many observers, the fact that “Unplanned” didn’t receive a review from a staff critic was an outright snub, another example of a liberally inclined media overlooking or marginalizing views they don’t agree with. “A healthy democracy does indeed ‘die in darkness,’ ” one reader emailed.

I shared his frustration. Because the truth is, The Post didn’t get a chance to see “Unplanned” in time for a staffer or freelancer to file a review before it arrived in theaters. In most cases, studios or publicists reach out to us a few weeks in advance of a film’s opening, offering either in-person screenings or computer links. In the case of “Unplanned,” we received no such correspondence. Indeed, we considered ourselves lucky that we at least had the benefit of the Common Sense Media review — even if it focused mostly on the content of the film, rather than its formal strengths and weaknesses.

After hearing from more disappointed readers, I contacted the distributor of “Unplanned” and was put in touch with the film’s public relations consultant, Alfred Hopton, who explained that he conducted screenings in New York and Los Angeles, where he made the film available to members of critics’ associations in those cities. “Some in ‘faith-based’ film circles are afraid of negative reviews from film critics and make a practice of hiding their films from reviewers,” Hopton said in one of several email exchanges. “Our team does not subscribe to that, and that’s why we made it available to critics.”

Well, yes and no. Although Hopton was pleased by the turnout at both screenings, he’s convinced that “some but not all” mainstream critics didn’t show up due to “Unplanned’s” subject matter. It’s certainly also true that others declined due to lack of time and a chronic shortage of space for arts coverage. (The film’s competition for precious ink that week included the Disney fantasy “Dumbo,” the fact-based drama “Hotel Mumbai,” the Matthew McConaughey comedy “The Beach Bum” and a clutch of art-house films.)

But what about critics not privy to Hopton’s screenings? No one at The Post received notice that “Unplanned” was available for advance consideration, even by link. A colleague in New York who says he was not notified of the preview there instead attended the very first public showing of the film so he could file his review that night. A critic in the Midwest was invited to the L.A. screening, which would have made for an impossible commute under the best of circumstances.

Still, the fact that reviews of “Unplanned” didn’t appear in several mainstream outlets has only strengthened the narrative that media has “ignored” the film, prompting stories reinforcing the notion that the liberal media is once again dismissing entertainment they deem politically unacceptable or pop-culturally beneath them. (“The movie abortion supporters don’t want you to see,” blared a typical headline on my own newspaper’s website.) It surely doesn’t help that the “Unplanned” Twitter account was briefly and mysteriously suspended on March 30, understandably fueling more conspiratorial outrage. The film’s directors have also complained about receiving an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America.

By leveraging all this grievance into loads of free publicity — called “earned awareness” in advertising parlance — the producers of “Unplanned” have created a box-office bonanza. Gaining valuable word-of-mouth by way of screenings at churches, conferences and for individual opinion leaders (a playbook perfected with “The Passion of the Christ” 15 years ago), the “Unplanned” team has brilliantly connected with the film’s core audience, amassing an impressive box office return of $13 million and counting.

This kind of smart grass-roots outreach is what can make films like “Unplanned” big hits, with or without traditional reviews (it worked for “God’s Not Dead” as well). And such a shrewd and responsive marketing achievement should be celebrated or a least grudgingly admired — but not twisted into a false notion of victimhood. It’s difficult to imagine that the rollout of “Unplanned” hasn’t gone even better than its makers originally planned. If anything, they deserve kudos for identifying and activating an enthusiastic audience within a hypercompetitive marketplace.

But the idea that the film has been unfairly treated by critics is less a function of biased media or our increasingly bellicose culture wars than good old-fashioned ballyhoo.