Jordan: They tried to stop us from making the podcast that you’re about to hear. They felt that you couldn’t handle the truth. They threatened us, they tried to intimidate us, they tried to shut us down, and they almost succeeded but Claire and I wouldn’t let that happen. Today’s podcast is about Unplanned. It’s a film, it opens on about 60 screens in Canada today. It tells a fictionalized version of the story of Abby Johnson who was a Planned Parenthood volunteer who became an anti abortion activist. As you may imagine this film has become a flashpoint in the ongoing abortion debate so you can see why a podcast discussing that film might be subject to protests, and legal battles, and have to fight like hell just to get aired. No, that’s a total lie. There was as much preventing us from releasing this podcast, as there was preventing the distributor of Unplanned from releasing that film. But it’s better for business for both of us if it seems to you like listening or watching is a free speech issue. So I figured we would take a page out of their book and claim censorship. Why is that strategy so effective? How frequently has it been utilized in the long history of cinema, and why do we all still fall for it even when it’s obvious that we are being cynically provoked? So no, we are not really talking about Unplanned today, we are talking about why we’re talking about it, even though we know no good will come of it.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Norm Wilner is the senior film writer for Now Magazine. He is also the host of a podcast called Someone Else’s Movie, which is the newest member of the Frequency Podcast Network as of today. Hi, Norm.
Norm: Hi! This is cool.
Jordan: Welcome to the family.
Norm: Thank you. Well, I mean, you know, I’ve like this podcast for a year now, so it’s kind of weird and fun to be part of it. I’m quite excited.
Jordan: We are delighted to have you and you’re gonna tell us today, and I want you to start with the general theme, but tell me about studios using controversy and allegations of censorship to market their films. How unusual is this practice? How far does it go back?
Norm: It goes back decades. When I was thinking about the most vivid example, there was a producer in the fifties named William Castle who would market his horror films by saying we can’t show you, we can’t just tell you, we can’t tell you what’s so scary about it. When he released a film on the, basically the drive in circuit, the B movie circuit in 1958 called McCobb, which was just about murders and wasn’t particularly scary, he gave out a life insurance policy, to everyone who attended to take care of their burial and give their family $1000 if the movie scared them to death. Obviously he never had to pay it, and he knew it, and it costs what two cents to print a roll of those things in the fifties. But it was a brilliant marketing scheme because that was the movie where it could scare you to death. And it’s just the idea that there is something out there that is so disturbing that you’re not allowed to see it, that’s how you market something that maybe isn’t that disturbing or that relevant.
Jordan: What does that mean for theaters today in Canada? I guess not many of them, but certainly some of them.
Norm: It’s about 60 I think that; 60 screens are playing on Plan B. It’s in 24 landmark and Cineplex theaters across the country, generally one per city. It was booked by a distributor based in the Maritimes, and it was a….. teased for awhile I think is the best way to put it. The film opened in the States in March, the end of March, and in May the producers brought it to Canada, specifically to Ottawa for the March for Life at Parliament Hill and they brought Abby Johnson, who is the woman who wrote the book on which it is based. It’s a memoir that is now fictionalized film, and she showed it for a bunch of friendlies. She showed it to the march for life people, she showed it to some of the marchers, I believe, and a number of conservative members of Parliament who immediately started tweeting about how Canada needs to see this film and why can’t we have it right now? And the answer was because they hadn’t set up a distribution plan for it yet. They just hadn’t done that yet. It wasn’t banned….
Jordan: So there was nothing preventing them from releasing it in Canada back in whenever, two months ago?
Norm: It may not have been submitted to the ratings boards at that point, I don’t know what that history is.
Jordan: Nobody was standing in it.
Norm: No, no, no, no, no. A film can be released in Canada so long as it has been rated by whichever provincial board it wants to be released in the province of, I think that’s a tortured sentence but that’s it. You submit it to the appropriate agencies, you get a rating, and your distributor puts it in theaters and the theaters will book it, because that’s how that works. You will not get a 1200 screen release, because Cineplex is busy with the Avengers or Aladdin, or right now, the Lion King or whatever else is going on. But you will, you can; You can put a movie in theaters yourself, you can pay money yourself and obviously the distributor, in this case, the American distributor Pure Flicks was gambling that the controversy in Canada would lead to a larger demand for the film, and so they could book it into; Well they were hoping for 100 to 200 screens according to an interview they gave last month to a right wing newspaper website, and they didn’t get that, so the interest just personally wasn’t there. But it’s opening, and there was never any impediment, legal or otherwise from the government, there were never any challenges, they could’ve released it in May if they wanted to, they could’ve released in March if they wanted to, but this way they get to ride into theaters as martyrs, fighting for the cause of this anti abortion message that they have in the movie.
Jordan: So yeah, why is censorship even a part of this discussion if there was nothing in its way?
Norm: It’s…. what do they call it? Waving the bloody shirt? It was an old revolutionary term where you would just wave something to say look at this. When the House Un-American Activities Commission in the fifties in America, people would wave; Look at all these telegrams, these empty sheets of paper, look at all these telegrams from people supporting us. Donald Trump fairly recently posed with a whole bunch of empty binders to signify his commitment to whatever policy that was, and we know they were empty because he was dumb enough to let photographers get close to them, and we could all see that there was nothing in there. It’s a prop. It’s a shibboleth to use an old phrase that I think my grandfather liked. It’s something you can wave around and make people angry about, but it doesn’t have to be real. There’s a monster in the woods, don’t worry, I saw it. It won’t let me release my movie, but the movies….. there is no impediment to releasing this film and there never was.
Jordan: In that sense did they achieve their goals? You wrote about this in Now Toronto, the people wrote about it. You’re on the podcast right now.
Norm: This is the third long form interview I’ve given about it in three days, which is just ridiculous, and every time I say, do we really have to? Cause nobody wins. That’s the thing, everybody gets played in these things, if we talk about it, we’re giving them publicity. If we talk about it as a controversy it would give them even more publicity, because this is exactly what a movie like this needs to thrive. The people who need to see this need to see it because either it affirms their beliefs and they don’t see a lot of entertainment that does, or because they have been convinced that it’s a crusade, to go and see this film, to be brave and go and see a movie, and pay 12 or $15 is to support the cause, and the cause in this case is restricting women’s rights, and rolling back laws, and demolishing healthcare and further tarring Planned Parenthood with this stigma of, I think in the film it’s presented as an evil corporation that lies about its nonprofit status in order to procure more abortions, or to give him more abortions, to perform them. And I mean I support a number of causes, I don’t think Planned Parenthood does that. I think if they had, if there was demonstrable proof than they would have gone out of business in the bush years because that was a thing for Bush. You can always say, oh, I couldn’t tell you the real thing, I couldn’t show you the real truth, and then you just leave it open, and other people who are maybe not the most discerning or are only looking for things that reinforce what they already believe will glom onto that.
Jordan: So what happens to the culture in general, I guess, specifically, entertainment and film, but our popular culture in general, when a film like this comes out and becomes to your point, a rallying point for one group, and an opposition focal point for another?
Norm: Nothing. I mean as I have experienced it over and over again, nothing will change. No one’s perspective is gonna be altered by the release of this movie, or by the experience of seeing it. Nobody’s gonna go see it I expect who doesn’t already believe in its message, and no one will come away from it who does believe, not believing.
Jordan: So why are we talking about it?
Norm: Because they played us, because they managed to get this across, they managed to build up enough controversy, they managed to manufacture enough controversy about a controversy that everyone starts saying, Well, what’s the controversy? And then you have to unpack it, and unpacking it requires discussing the film. And then they will use a piece of this to make it sound as though somehow we’re evil, that’s what happens. And the problem is for journalists with a sense of, I hate to say, fairness, integrity, all those things that don’t count anymore. But people who believe in telling the truth to their readers or their audience will always fall for this because we have to. It’s like the joke about someone being wrong on the Internet, you have to respond. Only in this case there are, you know, it’s a lie, it’s an actual factual mistruth that there was ever censorship. The government is the only entity, the consensor, right? I mean, that is the definition of censorship, never a thing. But if you believe that Justin Trudeau and his liberals are evil and out to slaughter more babies, well, of course they would censor a film like this. That must be why it hasn’t come out yet, and all those other reasons are just lies too.
Jordan: What do they say to convince people that there is censorship at play? How do they manage to make people believe that something’s stopping this movie from coming out when it’s clearly coming out?
Norm: I think it’s just a whisper campaign. I think it’s simply the we couldn’t show; Well that’s it too, right? They’ve moved the goal post now that a 60 screen release, which is I think piddly is a good word, is a triumph because it’s coming out at all, because it took this long. Look how hard we must have fought to get into this many screens rather than…
Jordan: Because it’s so many months later than in America. So there must have been hurdles to cross in that time.
Norm: Exactly. Ya really all they did was wait for the march for life so they could screen it at a visible point in Canadian anti abortion activity, het a lot of people on board and then they probably screwed something up that couldn’t have got it in theaters faster. I don’t know. Maybe they always planmed to go up against Stuber, I don’t know that that’s….
Jordan: They picked a weak weekend in the summer.
Norm: It is a quiet weekend.
Jordan: So it would be a real blockbuster.
Norm: But it’s also a weekend where there wasn’t a lot of competition, where they could get screens, right, because stupors opening wasn’t so big as to overshadow everything. There were screens available, not a lot and I think Ellis Jacob’s statement is very clear that we gave them the bare minimum. But I kind of agree with his position, you can’t say no because then they’re right. If you do refuse to screen the film, you are responsible for it not screening, you are the monster that clamped down against the little movie. Now the little movie may not say anything reasonable people want to hear, but I still believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant, which is why I’m talking about it now, which is, of course, why we’re talking about this movie and giving it more publicity. We got played, and it’s all because we cannot abide the idea that this thing would get out there on its own terms.
Jordan: You mentioned that after we get played and have this discussion, someone, somewhere is gonna selectively quote from it, and prove that we’re evil. Has that happened to you?
Norm: Only recently just in terms of this one, only in terms of bad Twitter responses, a couple of people. There’s person who I don’t think is actually a human being, because her; She claims to be a grandmother of three who is staunchly pro life but she’s only ever tweeted to me in the five years she’s been on Twitter, so either she’s attacking people on a regular basis and deleting the tweets or whatever. No, it has not affected me in any real way, but I’m sure I’m an enemy of the people now in terms of their cause. I got a really snippy response on my blog of all things, from the, and I quote Canadian Distribution Company and Film Brokerage agency who have the exclusive rights to Unplanned in Canada. Forgive me as I have never heard of you before now, so what am I supposed to do with that? Ultimately if they have to answer me directly, they have to engage with what I’m saying and they can’t do that because it’s true. Like I’m not making any of this up, this is all really happening, this is their strategy, this is what happens every time a controversial, generally a controversial religious project makes it into theaters in Canada.
Jordan: It becomes an ideological battleground.
Norm: Absolutely. 10 years ago, maybe 11 there was a film called Expelled with Ben Stein from Ben Stein’s Money, former Nixon administration speechwriter in which he wandered around academia trying to demonstrate that the push for Darwinism, that the embrace of science and evolution was the evilest thing in the world. The idea was that he wanted; Remember the teach the controversy thing? That was his argument. He wanted to teach the controversy on why you have to have evolution acknowledged in academia rather than intelligent design, and why don’t people talk about the possibility of God being behind stuff and maybe panspermia is it just as believable and all this other stuff. But it ended up with a scene in which Ben Stein is in Auschwitz with his suit and his sneakers sitting down with his science buddy who tells him, literally and with a picture show that Darwinism led to Hitler, that the Nazi eugenics program was directly related to Charles Darwin, which, I mean, a case could be made that because both are scientifically based theories, although one is a perversion of the other, you could make that connection but then Ben Stein puts his head in his hands as though he’s just realized this for the very first time and sad music plays and then we see more footage from Triumph of the Will in Nuremberg, and it’s vile, and it’s all about making sure people understand that there’s this movie out there that wants to tell you the truth about how you can’t talk about God in academia, and a couple years later they fictionalized it into God’s Not Dead, which is the same thing, and that’s from Pure Flicks which brings us back to this. But with expelled, I saw it at a press screening, there were maybe 15 of us there and then a couple of days later they held another screening for religious leaders. Charles McVitie, who is a Catholic, I think, or an evangelical advocate in Toronto was there and need, I am told immediately after the screening, he took all of his friends from the screening, and they marched across from the varsity at Bloor and Bay to the ROM, and stood outside and shook their fists and upset about evolution, being codified somehow in the Royal Ontario Museum, and it was just a publicity stunt, and it was cynical, and disingenuous and manipulative….
Jordan: And it worked.
Norm: Well, I mean, I’m still talking about it, right? But it worked for their people. Everybody else laughs at them, but then the people, they need to see it see that picture on Facebook of their brave pastor standing up and shaking their fists at the Royal Ontario Museum and boy, yeah, let’s keep government out of I don’t know science, and let’s keep science out of the classrooms, and why can’t we talk about God? Well, you can….. It’s just not scientific, and the idea that it is somehow, you know, that Christians are the most persecuted group, which is something that keeps coming up in America right now, because it makes everyone feel like the victim in that way they don’t have to think about the things they’re actually responsible for. It just won’t stop, and this is the latest iteration of it.
Jordan: So what happens when the movie opens today? They’re gonna be protests outside of some of the theaters?
Norm: There is a plan for a protest outside Yonge and Dundas I think. There was one on Facebook a couple of days ago. I hope they don’t do it because that’s just; It’s giving the audience what they want, it’s giving the filmmakers what they want more than anything else. The movie will probably make a lot, well, not a lot of money, it can’t make a lot of money. it’s on 60 screens in Canada. It will make some money because another tactic is that they pre sell a lot of tickets in blocks to churches and then there will be people outside the theater for the 6:30 or seven o’clock show, whatever that is on a Friday night handing out these tickets that they bought because they’re hoping to bring people in for a free movie, and that way the movie still gets the money. It’s the same way right wing publishers will order 10,000-20,000 copies of their own books.
Jordan: Yeah, I was just going to ask that. Ya, bulk buying…. Amazon Books.
Norm: It’s exactly the same strategy, although the real money in this case is probably gonna be on DVD sales down the line for churches, and people who will buy this movie at Walmart or maybe not Walmart, but wherever, Costco. That’s what these movies are for, these are films that ultimately you don’t go to see them to enjoy them you go to see them as an act of service.
Jordan: To join the team.
Norm: To show your support, basically, yeah, to wave the flag and, you know good for them to do that but I I wish we could all just see them for what they are, rather than pretending that there’s some sort of cultural artifact to be respected.
Jordan: Well, we could just stop talking about them.
Norm: Let’s do that right now.
Norm: Lion King isn’t very good, we could talk about The Lion King.
Jordan: Norm just came from a screening of The Lion King. I only want you to tell me in one or two minutes what is going on with the Lion King? You don’t have to give anything away but I saw comparisons of the animated version of The Lion King, seeing Hakuna Matata with the current live action version of The Lion King quote unquote, and the new one looked so dead, and it made me so sad, and I wanted to know if the movie was any different or if I just saw something bad or….. What can’t this thing capture that an animation film can?
Norm: Character, really. I mean, the problem with photo realistic animals, and we saw this in the Jungle Book a few years ago also from Jon Favreau, and he’s just, he’s obsessed with this sort of performance environment for storytelling. This is his second straight film for Disney with gigantic CG budgets, because it’s not; I mean, it’s photo realistic, but it’s not real; It isn’t real animals, there are no real animals. The plates of the Savannah are there, they went to Kenya and they photographed a lot of stuff, and they used that as backdrops. But the animals are all digital, they’re all computer designed and because they’re trying so hard to look like real lions, and warthogs, and meerkats and hyenas, they don’t have the ability to express emotion the way the cartoons do, or the way a puppet would and it’s just cold and sad and empty. And no disrespect to Billy Eichner, who sings the hell out of Hakuna Matata, he’s having a great time, but it’s just some animals. I mean, it’s indistinguishable from a nature documentary that’s been cut to look like The Lion King, which I think would actually be more entertaining because it would be unpredictable.
Jordan: And real lions.
Norm: Yeah, you would have real lions, and you would have…. when a real lion eats a wildebeest carcass its face would be covered with blood but they can’t do that because that might upset children, so there’s this little red lip on scar instead, and it’s just why go to the effort of making it look as real as possible if you’re not going to treat them like real animals, at least in terms of the physical movement and the fact that they are eating each other, it’s very sad. It’s very, very disappointing.
Jordan: Well, thank you for that Norm.
Norm: I’m so sorry.
Jordan: If you want to hear Norm Wilner call all of this six months in advance, you can go back to a podcast we did last December when The Lion King trailer first debuted, and it’s all there.
Norm: Now I just listened to it this afternoon on the way up here. We nailed it, I mean it’s exactly what I thought; what I feared it would be and I’m disappointed because I didn’t want it to be. But….
Jordan: And there’s more in the pipeline. Thanks Norm.
Norm: Thanks for having me.
Jordan: Norm Wilner has a day job as the senior film writer for Now Toronto, but mostly he is the host of someone else’s movie, the newest podcast on the Frequency Podcast Network. That was The Big Story, you can find more of them at the bigstorypodcast.ca, you can find all of our podcasts including Norm’s, at frequencypodcastnetwork. com. You can subscribe for free and rate us, and review us wherever you get your podcasts on Apple, on Google, on Stitcher, on Spotify, and we would love to hear from you either @thebigstoryfpn on Twitter or @frequencypods. Claire Boussard is the lead producer of The Big Story, Ryan Clarke and Stephanie Phillips, are associate producers. Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor, and I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, thanks for listening, have a great weekend. We’ll talk Monday.
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