Inside the Marketing for Faith-Based 'Unbroken' Sequel

WTA GROUP/UNIVERSAL 1440 ENTERTAINMENT
'Unbroken: Path to Redemption'

The spiritual successor to Angelina Jolie's 2014 drama is described as "the rest of the unbelievable true story" of Louis Zamperini.

“I joke that it’s the first time the theatrical sequel to a hit movie cost 90 percent less than the original,” says Matthew Baer of his new film Unbroken: Path to Redemption, a so-called spiritual successor to the 2014 drama directed by Angelina Jolie.

That math is pretty accurate given that the production budget on Unbroken, which Baer also produced, was $65 million to Unbroken 2’s $6 million.

Although the stakes are lower this time around, there’s still pressure for Unbroken 2 to mark the next faith-based breakout. That’s because the sequel’s story, also based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-seller, picks up after protagonist Lou Zamperini returns from World War II and becomes a born-again Christian. Pure Flix opens the movie today on 1,620 screens, where it hopes to find an audience familiar with the late Olympian’s second act. The film is currently tracking for an opening weekend in the $2 million-$4 million range, but faith-based film bows can be tricky to predict.

Baer says the marketing budget on Unbroken 2 also was roughly one-tenth of its predecessor — some of the money being kicked in by Universal’s 1440 Entertainment, the home entertainment/direct-to-video unit (it also was a producer on the film). The filmmakers enlisted The WTA Group, a leader in faith-based film marketing and financing and the company that spearheaded the grassroots marketing on I Can Only Imagine, currently the No. 1 indie movie of the year at the box office with its $83 million domestic haul.

“One of the biggest challenges in marketing this movie was differentiating it in the consumer’s mind from the first movie,” says WTA Group founder Bill Reeves. “We didn’t want them thinking it was the same movie. So, we focused on the message, ‘The rest of the unbelievable true story.’”

Nearly a year before the film’s release, WTA embarked on outreach to churches and veterans. Unlike traditional studio marketing, which relies heavily on TV ads, faith-based promotion spends a significant chunk on radio promotion. Borrowing a page from I Can Only Imagine, which relied heavily on the MercyMe song of the same name, Unbroken 2 features the song "You Found Me" from popular Christian rockers Switchfoot in an effort to build awareness.

Still, execution is key for the Harold Cronk-helmed film, which stars Samuel Hunt as Lou Zamperini, not unlike non-religious movies (bolstered by solid reviews, Unbroken earned $163 million worldwide).

“If you have a movie that doesn't work creatively, you can have as many pastors in the world make people aware of the movie, but the minute they see the movie, it won’t work,” says Baer. “In the case of I Can Only Imagine, the movie works creatively. What I feel good about in Path to Redemption is that it's built around the same model, which is if you make a good movie, then you can maintain interest in the weeks that follow, which is why I Can Only Imagine continued to perform.”

As for why Jolie never included Zamperini's conversion in her 2014 film, Baer says she tried. Various drafts of the script included the transformation, but the only fitting denouement to the three-act movie was Zamperini’s escape from a World War II prison camp. Otherwise, it would have been a three-hour movie.

“The reason why Unbroken the book works so beautifully is because there’s no time limit in the book,” says Baer. “We also knew that if we gave Lou’s coming-to-Christ short shrift, we’d get criticized for giving it short shrift. I am 1,000 percent certain that, creatively, it was the right thing to do because Path to Redemption tells the story properly and gives it the respect it deserves.”

(Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.)