Talk about bad timing. Google is under fire this week for misleading Congress about its manual manipulation of its search engine to exclude some conservative websites. That makes this a bad week for Google to get creative in categorizing the film Unplanned as a “drama/propaganda,” as Daily Signal contributor Kelsey Bolar discovered:
— Kelsey Bolar (Harkness) (@kelseybolar) April 11, 2019
Fox News was all over the story last night:
Google is the latest tech giant to be accused of bias against the newly released pro-life film “Unplanned,” with the search engine listing the movie as “propaganda.”
“Unplanned” is the story of a Planned Parenthood clinic director who becomes an anti-abortion activist. …
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.
Here’s that comparison:
Unplanned is labeled as propaganda.
— Ryan B. Leslie (@RyanBLeslie) April 12, 2019
Just in pragmatic terms, a “propaganda” category might not be a great idea, as it might encompass a significant part of Hollywood’s output. Even Dumbo, with its reportedly heavy-handed treatment of capitalism, could qualify. What a ground-breaking idea!
Google seems too embarrassed to pursue it, at least now that it’s been called out for it:
A Google spokesperson told Fox News that after analyzing web content about “Unplanned,” there was a large volume that called the movie propaganda. But after being made aware of facts that have been disputed through the company’s “Knowledge Graph,” the company works to fix issues, the spokesperson said.
After the controversy was sparked, Google has updated its search results, removing the propaganda tag.
That leaves a question or two unanswered, though. What’s the tag doing there at all? Do they routinely assign that tag, or is it just kept handy for point-of-view films whose POV Google opposes? Their explanation doesn’t make a lot of sense, although it may well be true anyway. If they really categorize film genres by analyzing “web content” rather than just the declared genre by the film company, who knows how those tags could turn out? Battlefield Earth might get tagged as a comedy, and for all the laughs you get out it, Date Movie might have been tagged as an apocalyptic dystopian drama. And don’t even get me started on the Andromeda Strain remake.
Honestly, if Google applied that propaganda tag in an even-handed manner, it might make sense, especially for films like Vice and Michael Moore’s documentaries. His film Sicko practically came out of Cuba’s ministry for propaganda in the first place. Given Hollywood’s propensity for mixing political agendas into a broad range of their product and the “web content” generated by their promotion campaigns (think Captain Marvel and the Ghostbusters reboot), it might turn out to be a rather handy flag for moviegoers who don’t want to enroll in a Hollywood Re-Education Camp Annex. But if Google’s not prepared to apply that tag even-handedly, it shouldn’t exist at all.
That’s hardly the only media controversy involving Unplanned, but the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday thinks the complaints are basically a marketing gimmick. It didn’t get many reviews, she says, because the filmmakers didn’t set up pre-release screenings on a wide basis:
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.
Hornaday’s not entirely wrong here, but let’s also recall the context. Unplanned had a $6 million budget, on the low end even for indie films. The budget wasn’t there for a massive PR campaign and tons of private screenings for critics. Even after holding screenings in New York and Los Angeles — two major media centers — Unplanned only got a dozen or so reviews in the first few days of its release on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s about to go into its third weekend and Rotten Tomatoes still only has 21 reviews aggregated (48% “fresh, by the way). Compare that to Hotel Mumbai, which has a smaller release footprint and also is in its third week of release, and which has … 127 reviews aggregated.
Maybe it was inconvenient to get to the film the first couple of days, but critics have had plenty of time to catch up to Unplanned. They just aren’t interested in covering it, while social-media platforms seem more interested in covering it up.