Hollywood balks at getting behind pro-life project, producer tells Tennessee Right to Life supporters
By Bill Brewer
Hollywood is always quick to embrace a true-life drama rich in pathos, conflict, interesting characters, and suspense … or so it would seem.
But when Irish journalists/producers Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer were transforming their bestselling book “Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer” into a movie, interest was scarce.
And so began their independent odyssey to bring the non-fiction story to life on the movie screen. After four years and nearly $3 million spent developing the film “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer,” the husband-and-wife journalism team is ready for crowds to see their movie in theaters.
So far, that isn’t happening. While the movie has attracted interest, widespread buzz about the feature-length film has been muted, a situation Mrs. McElhinney blames on Hollywood and its pro-choice culture, which is shared around the United States.
The book and movie are based on the legal case against Dr. Kermit Gosnell, the notorious Philadelphia abortionist who was convicted of first-degree murder in the killings of three infants born alive in his abortion clinic and involuntary manslaughter in the death of an abortion patient, Karnamaya Mongar. Dr. Gosnell also was convicted of 21 counts of performing illegal late-term abortions and 211 counts of violating Pennsylvania’s 24- hour informed consent law.
The abortion doctor agreed not to appeal his 2013 conviction in exchange for avoiding the death penalty and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Mrs. McElhinney was the keynote speaker Oct. 15 at the Knox County chapter of Tennessee Right to Life’s annual banquet held at the Knoxville Convention Center. The banquet and its speaker attracted about 400 attendees.
The depravity of Dr. Gosnell’s crimes first grabbed the attention of Mrs. McElhinney and Mr. McAleer. Then the community of enablers who endorsed the doctor’s grisly practices — from his neighborhood clinic workers and patients to Pennsylvania’s governor and that state’s bureaucracy — persuaded them to do the book, which became the screenplay for the movie.
Mrs. McElhinney said that while she researched the story behind the movie from an objective standpoint, she arrived at the project from more of a pro-choice point of view.
“I didn’t come at this from a pro-life perspective at all. If anything, it was better to describe me as pro-choice than pro-life. I’ve had a rather big ‘come to Jesus’ on that. I’ve had a big conversion because I didn’t know. I just didn’t know,” she said.
“You would have to be very hardhearted not to be changed by this story. It really clarifies what abortion is about for people who have been persuaded that it was a clump of cells and not a human being and all of that. Having seen all the evidence from the trial, I have no doubt about what gets aborted,” she added, referring to the children who are killed in an abortion.
While Dr. Gosnell is the film’s real-life antagonist, the film also highlights the actual protagonists who overcame opposition forces, primarily Pennsylvania state government, to bring the abortionist to justice.
And in some ways similar to the authorities who investigated, indicted, and won the conviction of Dr. Gosnell, Mrs. McElhinney and Mr. McAleer have pushed back against popular resistance to getting their film made.
Mrs. McElhinney described how difficult it was to get the movie made and the juxtaposition of favorable response to it.
“It’s abortion. It’s very simple; it’s abortion. People are incensed. I don’t have to explain to anyone how contentious the issue of abortion is. If anyone witnessed what happened to Brett Kavanaugh, that’s pretty clear that that was nothing to do with sexual assault. It was everything to do with politics. And the politics involved was abortion. And that crazy behavior, that completely insane behavior was based on that,” she told the banquet guests.
“So, Hollywood understands the power of a movie. The Vietnam War was nearly ended because of movies. This is an incredibly powerful tool to affect people’s emotions. A lot of people don’t listen to politics and don’t listen to politicians, but people watch movies and they get very, very affected by them,” she added. “I think this is one of those films that is like that. We are getting reactions that are unbelievable, unprecedented. I’ve spoken to people in the industry who know how people react to movies, and this is unprecedented.”
She explained that “Gosnell” has nearly a 100 percent rating from audience members who saw the film shortly after its release and responded on the movie and television industry ratings website Rotten Tomatoes. However, the film received a nearly evenly split 55 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes from the few film critics who reviewed the movie.
The project has consumed four years of the couple’s life. The producers of documentaries related to fracking, mining, and global warming called “Gosnell” one of their most challenging endeavors.
News website “The Daily Wire” reported Oct. 22 that on its second weekend of theatrical release, “Gosnell” “continued to enjoy solid per-theater performance despite reports of it being suspiciously dropped from high-performing theaters after opening weekend. The website also reported, citing leading online box-office reporting service “Box Office Mojo,” that the film earned more than $2 million in the first two weeks from 668 screens and was among the top 10 grossing films in its first weekend.
“It’s a very tough environment,” Mrs. McElhinney said, noting that she is traveling across the United States and in other countries, too, promoting the film, and a social media campaign also has been under way.
“We’re trying everything. We are the scrappy little independent movie trying to make a name for ourselves; it’s not easy. But people are great, and this country is full of amazing leaders who have really rallied behind us. We have had unbelievable response from people like the people in Knoxville.”
She said groups and organizations from New York City to California and many places in between have supported the movie. She pointed out that there is demand to see the film in Canada, Germany, Holland, England, and even Ireland, which in May held a referendum where voters overwhelmingly overturned a national ban on abortions.
She observed that despite a formidable pro-choice constituency throughout the world, the United States is an “extremely” religious country, as are some European countries, locations where pro-life sentiment still can be found.
“There is massive overseas interest [in the film]. And this is a very religious country, this country of America. A lot of people don’t know that, but it is an incredibly religious country. So is Germany. People don’t know that, but Germany is a very, very religious country, actually a very Catholic country, an extremely Catholic country. There are other countries like that. Poland, obviously, is one, and Spain is very religious. There are religious countries across Europe where there is an appetite for this. There are people who feel very strongly and are very worried. The same in South America and Australia. We’re getting an amazing response from Australia. We were funded by a lot of people in Australia.”
She noted that 30,000 people donated money to the film from 17 countries, which indicates wide appeal and offers more affirmation for what she and her production team are presenting.
At the Tennessee Right to Life banquet, Mrs. McElhinney received an ovation when she announced that after the release of “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer” on Oct. 12 the film quickly became the No. 1 independent film in America during the early ratings period and overall was No. 12 at the time behind several studio-backed blockbusters.
But she said it was “disappointing” that by Oct. 15, only about 120,000 people had seen the film.
“This issue matters a great deal to millions of people, and millions of people need to go see the film.”
She called the assertion by movie-industry observers that the film should only be viewed in churches “absolutely wrong.”
“This is a movie that needs to be a box-office success. If it’s not in a movie theater, it’s not a movie in the first place. Churches are not cinemas. People should be lined up around the block at the movie theater.”
She admonished conservatives for not understanding entertainment, which she said is why they are not anywhere in the entertainment marketplace. She noted that those politically and socially left of conservatives take the entertainment industry very seriously.
Pointing out that four movies made about abortion show the procedure in a positive light, she contrasted that to the people who suggest that “Gosnell” is a religious film destined to only be shown in sanctuaries.
As of Nov. 21, only 11 mainstream media movie reviewers had critiqued the film compared to the leading films, which received upward of 300 reviews.
Mrs. McElhinney, who believes reviews are instrumental in getting the word out about films, said the “Gosnell” team is working hard to overcome a lack of them, which is why she and others involved in the movie are personally promoting it.
She felt vindicated with the film’s release and its position as the No. 1 independent film in the United States in October. As difficult as it was to get the film made, it was equally difficult to get it distributed to theaters.
Because no mainstream movie industry company wanted to be involved with “Gosnell,” Mrs. McElhinney and Mr. McAleer turned to crowd-funding for financial help. They were not disappointed.
The crowd-funding campaign raised $2.3 million. And investors stepped in to help fund distribution of the movie.
“Having been so successful with the crowd-funding and having a historic campaign, we thought we would have no problem at all; distributors will go crazy for this. The agent we even had said there would be no problem getting the film out there. Then he said in his long career selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of films, he’s never come across a situation like the one he came across with this,” Mrs. McElhinney said.
But against all odds, “Gosnell” has been in theaters appealing to moviegoers. She emphasized the fact the film is rated PG-13 and contains few graphic elements.
The film stars “Superman” actor Dean Cain, Janine Turner, who was featured in the film “Cliffhanger” and TV series “Northern Exposure” and “Friday Night Lights,” and Earl Billings as Dr. Gosnell, as well as Michael Beach, Sarah Jane Morris, Cyrina Fiallo, Nick Searcy, Damon Carney, Darryl Cox, Grace Montie, and JR Hatchett.
Mr. Searcy, whose film credits include “Cast Away,” “The Fugitive,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Moneyball,” “Runaway Jury,” and “The Shape of Water,” also directed “Gosnell.”
Mrs. McElhinney applauded the actors and production team for persevering to present an important story to the world. She sensed those working on the film felt pressure amid “veiled threats” from the movie industry.
“I think anyone who worked on this film is a brave and courageous person,” she said. “If this goes well, it will be an incentive to keep doing projects like this. But it’s very hard. We don’t have the Hollywood machine behind us. We’re working every angle we possibly can.”
Stacy Dunn, executive director of the Knox County chapter of Tennessee Right to Life, said Ms. McElhinney was one of TRL’s most powerful and unique banquet speakers.
“We were fortunate to host her just days after her film ‘Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer’ had been released nationally,” Mrs. Dunn said. “As a researcher and movie producer, her dedication to uncover the truth and then make it into a full-length feature film made for a powerful presentation. Mrs. McElhinney shared with the audience that she has been forever changed by what she discovered about late-term abortion in America, the political scandal that protects the abortion industry, and the media that covers it all up. She is now unable and unwilling to keep silent and has dedicated herself to exposing the lies about abortion.”
Mrs. Dunn pointed out that Mrs. McElhinney told the audience that although abortion is evil and the actions of Kermit Gosnell were evil, those weren’t the things that scare her the most.
“She said what keeps her up at night is how many people were willing to turn their heads in acceptance or remain silent about what was going on in that ‘house of horrors’ in Philadelphia. She encouraged everyone to overcome the silence and do everything possible to spread the truth so that the tragedy of abortion will end,” Mrs. Dunn said. “The film is well done and brutally honest. Mrs. McElhinney and her husband were able to present the graphic nature of abortion in such a way that the film has a PG-13 rating. This was intentional in order to make it acceptable to the largest possible audience and have the biggest impact possible.”
Mrs. Dunn said that even with the impactful impression the film leaves with its audiences, perhaps the most powerful part of the entire film is when the credits roll at the conclusion and viewers see actual photographs that were presented during Dr. Gosnell’s trial.
“Viewers from all over the country have experienced the same thing at the end of the movie — stunned silence. The truth is just that overwhelming. The producers have been able to unmask the lie that abortion is a simple procedure that helps women and expose it for what it is, an act of violence that kills a baby and wounds a mother,” Mrs. Dunn said.