That mass-media firestorm surrounding 'Unplanned': Is 'censorship' the right word here?

So, there’s another one of those “Christian” niche-market movies that’s about to come to a theater near you. Maybe you’re heard about it? Or maybe you have even seen the trailer for “Breakthrough” before one of those family friendly movies at your local multiplex?

There’s a good chance that you have been able to see the trailer, as explained in this Religion News Service piece. That fact alone turns this into a somewhat different “Christian movie in the marketplace” story than the one that “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and I discussed during this week’s podcast (click here to tune that in).

Why? Hang in there with me, because this will take some explaining.

Producer DeVon Franklin was “blown away” by the Smiths’ story several years ago when he met Joyce and John Smith and their pastor, Jason Noble, while promoting his film “Miracles From Heaven.” …

The producer said “Breakthrough” builds on the success of the other films he has produced with explicitly Christian messages: “Miracles From Heaven,” which also is based on the true story of a mother holding on to faith as her child faces a health crisis, and “The Star,” an animated film telling the story of Jesus’ birth from the viewpoint of the animals.

And it’s well positioned to reach even more people, he said. Franklin said he was surprised how many movies the trailer has accompanied in theaters since then and by the positive response they have received. He’s seen “unprecedented interest in this type of content,” he said.

Now, if the trailer for this movie is showing in front of lots of mainstream films — like the superheat “Mary Poppins Returns” — and reaching family friendly audiences, then that would mean that “Breakthrough” is rated PG — which it is. The film has also been welcomed, without rancor, into the world of social media.

So how is this different from that other Christian-market movie that is in the news right now? What have you read about “Unplanned” and its attempts to reach the emerging marketplace for faith-driven films?

“Unplanned,” of course, has been surrounded by controversy from the start — when it was filmed in secret, under a code name.

Here’s the best short summary of this media-marketplace controversy that I have read, care of a Washington Post op-ed by former George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen. The headline: “The movie abortion supporters don’t want you to see.”

They gave the movie an “R” rating — which meant the trailer could only run before “R”- rated movies and no one younger than 17 could see it without a parent’s permission.

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. (Twitter restored the account after outraged filmgoers flooded them with complaints). 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”?

But if you want want the opposite point of view, see this feature that ran at the Post — care of its own film critic. The headline for this one offers a very different spin on the challenges that faced the team behind “Unplanned.” As in this: “Was ‘Unplanned’ a victim of media bias or an example of grievance-as-marketing?

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.

In other words, what we see here is something like “evangelicals pounced!” The big story isn’t mainstream marketplace bias demonstrated against this movie, but the fact that savvy evangelicals turned that into dollars by playing the victim card.

So what’s the most important marketplace issue linked to these films? I offered my own take on this in an “On Religion” column more than a week ago. See: “The mass media holy wars surrounding that ‘Unplanned’ movie about abortion.”

But, you know, the more I think about this, the more I think that the big story here isn’t the content of these movies, in and of themselves. The fight over the ratings is important, but I think there’s an even bigger story here that journalists — and Christian-niche consumers — need to think about.

The “Unplanned” movie’s backers have talked a lot about the “censorship” of their movie in the marketplace. That’s the wrong word, since “censorship” is what happens when GOVERNMENT powers are used to suppress speech.

No, what we are dealing with here isn’t censorship, it’s something closer to another important word — monopoly. That’s a word that really used to matter to folks on the political left.

Think about this question, please: How important are the digital superpowers — Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, in particular — to public discourse in America right now?

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At the moment, they are functioning as a kind of semi-official utility that controls the information that reaches, or never has a chance to reach, millions of Americans.

Even Google, the omnipresent search-engine service, is part of this debate, now. Maybe you saw a Fox News report about Google and “Unplanned”?

The Daily Signal’s Kelsey Bolar noted Thursday that Google classifies “Unplanned” as a “drama/propaganda.”

“Who knew that ‘propaganda’ was a movie genre? Google once again exposing its gross political bias,” Bolar tweeted a screenshot of search results, which have been verified by Fox News.

Another Twitter user compared the search results of “Unplanned” with those of left-leaning films like the Dick Cheney biopic “Vice” and the documentaries of Michael Moore. None of them were considered “propaganda” by Google.

What about a movie that is considered one of the most powerful examples of political propaganda ever made? I am referring to the Nazi Germany classic, “The Triumph of the Will” about the rise of Adolph Hitler?

What does Google label that movie?

Wait for it.

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