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06/14/2019 12:54 EDT | Updated 06/16/2019 18:00 EDT

Is Anti-Abortion Movie 'Unplanned' Really Coming To 100s Of Theatres In Canada?

There are few details about the "major Canadian release" that right-wing organizations are talking about.

Unplanned
A scene from the anti-abortion movie "Unplanned," which filmmakers say is coming to Canada this summer.

An anti-abortion movie that several film critics have described as “propaganda” has found a distributor that plans to bring it to Canadian screens this summer.

But, while the distributor and several right-wing news sources describe it as a “major Canadian release,” Cinedicom had confirmed to HuffPost Canada just two theatres that have committed to showing the movie. Another theatre originally slated for a showing is now reviewing its plans. 

“Unplanned” is based on the true story of Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood employee who is now an anti-abortion activist. It’s grossed more than $USD 18 million since its American release on March 29. It’s also been described as dangerous and factually unfounded.

On Tuesday, Catholic organization Grandin Media announced that “Unplanned” is “finally getting a major Canadian release” and that the filmmakers expect to see it in “100 to 200” theatres throughout the country, starting in July. A new trailer says it will be “in theatres across Canada” over the summer. The news has been reported in several right-wing and religiously-based outlets.

Independent marketing company, Cinedicom, which has agreed to distribute “Unplanned,” told HuffPost Canada that “there certainly seems to be a demand for the movie.” The company’s president, BJ McKelvie, said he’s had interest from theatres in eight provinces, but by Thursday evening, he could only share two theatres that had officially committed: the Port Theatre in Cornwall, Ont. and the Burin Cinema in Burin, N.L. Over the weekend, HuffPost Canada got news that a third theatre, Carnival Cinemas in Red Deer, Alta., would screen the movie as well.

Maury Phillips via Getty Images
Ashley Bratcher, star of "Unplanned," with Joy Villa, wearing a "Fuck Planned Parenthood" dress, at the "Unplanned" premiere on March 18.

Another theatre was listed on Grandin’s original release: the Movie Mill in Lethbridge, Alta. When HuffPost Canada contacted the Movie Mill, the president, Leonard Binning, said they’re no longer sure how they will proceed,  due to the amount of opposition the movie has received.

“We are a small independent theatre and I am always on the lookout for smaller surprise hit films to bring to our area,” he wrote in an email.

He initially made inquiries to show it in Canada because it had been so successful in the States, Binning said.

“We were not and are not motivated by pro-choice or pro-life,” he said. “We are doing what we always do, trying to run the best theatre possible for our community ... [I had] ABSOLUTELY no idea the heated controversy that would arise once the cat was out of the bag that we would make a screen available.”

The Movie Mill has received a flurry of messages in the last few days, from people on both sides of the issue. Binning said the theatre is weighing options and seeking discussions with locals about their concerns. 

Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press
Pro-Choice supporters rally on the sidelines as people take part in the March For Life rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 9, 2019.

McKelvie also claimed in an email to HuffPost Canada that, in addition to the independent cinemas, Cineplex will screen “Unplanned” in their theatres as well.

But, while Cineplex spokesperson Sarah Van Lange confirmed to HuffPost Canada that they are in talks with Cinedicom, she stressed that nothing has been finalized.

When the film was released in the U.S. in April, anti-abortion groups started a campaign to get it shown at Cineplex. The producers of “Unplanned” have said that Cineplex, which runs 164 theatres throughout Canada with a total of 1,676 screens, “has monopolistic power” over the country’s film industry.

Not showing the movie amounts to “de facto censorship,” co-writer and co-director Chuck Konzelman has said, adding that the film’s content is the reason it hasn’t been accepted.

Van Lange explained to HuffPost Canada that this is not the case.

For Cineplex to screen a movie, it first needs a Canadian distributor with “a distribution marketing plan that we feel ensures the film will have commercial viability in the marketplace,” she said. It also needs an official rating classification from a provincial or territorial review board.

In other words, because “Unplanned” didn’t have a Canadian distributor until this week, there was no way it could have be shown in any of the theatres.

The movie’s content has been questioned

The movie’s story, about Abby Johnson’s transformation from Planned Parenthood director to anti-abortion crusader, has been questioned frequently. She says she changed her mind after watching the termination of a thirteen-week fetus on an ultrasound monitor, claiming that she witnessed the fetus moving away from the device.

But, Texas Monthly reported that the clinic’s records show there were no patients further along than ten weeks on the date in question. When this was pointed out, Johnson claimed that Planned Parenthood had falsified its records to discredit her.

In April, OG-GYN Jen Villavicencio told HuffPost that fetuses do not have purposeful movements at that gestational age. “The idea that a fetus would recoil or show fear or try to run away from a cannula [medical tube] is really a frank falsehood,” she said. “All the evidence says that is not possible.”

Even if few people see it, film has potential to harm: reproductive rights activist

“Unplanned” is unlikely to cause a major cultural shift in Canada, especially because it probably won’t be seen by many people who aren’t already against abortion, said Joyce Arthur, the executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC). But that doesn’t mean it won’t have a significant effect.

One of ARCC’s main concerns is that the movie might cause harm to abortion providers. “I think it’s really wrong to spread these ridiculous falsehoods that demonize abortion providers and put them at risk of harassment and even violence,” she told HuffPost Canada. 

“The film really poses a danger ... It’s not going to have an impact on the larger culture, but it’s going to have a big impact on this small subculture, which can spawn a lot of extremism and harassment, and even violence.”

According to The Cut, “Unplanned” is careful not to blame women who get abortions, instead focusing their ire on Planned Parenthood, which is depicted as a cruel and money-hungry operation preying on vulnerable pregnant women.

That strategy is fairly consistent with previous anti-abortion narratives, Arthur said — and that’s why she feels the film is dangerous.

“Just look at the history of violence: it targets providers,” she said.

Many anti-abortion narratives “remove responsibility from women, because they see women as victims,” she said. “It’s a very paternalistic view.”

Canadian politicians have praised the movie

The movie, written and directed by Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman, who have previously written Christian movies like “God’s Not Dead,” has been lauded by U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence on Twitter. Meanwhile, in Canada, Conservative MPs Brad Trost and Harold Albrecht attended a private screening of the film in Ottawa in March, and both tweeted their support for the movie.

At the time of the Ottawa screening, the movie’s star Ashley Bratcher faced social media pushback after Tweeting that “Canada desperately needs @UnplannedMovie.” In response, many Canadians made it clear that they’re glad they live in a country with access to free health care, where abortion is regulated by doctors rather than by lawmakers.

There has been one public screening of the movie in Canada, in Edmonton in May. It was hosted by Harvest Ministries International, a group that claims that Edmonton has been chosen by God because “the oil in the ground signals wealth and glory in the Spirit.” There have also been some private screenings, frequently where faith-based groups buy out a theatre for congregants, a strategy the filmmakers suggest.

“You never hear about that for other movies, that kind of strategy,” Arthur said. “At least I haven’t.” 

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