Word of Mouth: Erwins’ ‘October Baby’ aims to ‘get people to talk’

Contraception, abortion and women’s reproductive rights have been hot topics in recent months, from the halls of Congress and state legislatures to the Republican presidential primary. Now the filmmaking brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin hope to move the conversation to the multiplex with Friday’s “October Baby,” a movie about a young woman whose mother tried, but failed, to abort her.

Opening in limited national release in nearly 400 theaters, “October Baby” tells the story of 19-year-old Hannah (newcomer Rachel Hendrix), who suffers from an array of physical and emotional problems. Hannah learns early in the film that her mother attempted to terminate her pregnancy, then gave Hannah up for adoption when she was born. Hannah embarks on a road trip to find her birth mother, triggering a series of discoveries and reconciliations.

An earlier photo with this article misidentified “October Baby” actress Shari Rigby as Jennifer Price.

The PG-13 film and its makers clearly take an anti-abortion position — 10% of the profits from “October Baby” will benefit a new organization called Every Life Is Beautiful, which will funnel money to charities that oppose terminating pregnancies and support adoption. But “October Baby” is not overtly dogmatic, and the Erwins hope it can stimulate discussion, even among those who support abortion rights. “We want to ask the right questions to get people to talk,” Andrew Erwin, 33, said.

The brothers, who co-directed the $800,000 film, were inspired by the life of anti-abortion activist Gianna Jessen, whose mother sought an abortion when she was more than seven months pregnant; the procedure failed. “I’m not a politician. I’m not an activist,” said Jon Erwin, 29, who also shares “October Baby” screenplay credit. “I am just a filmmaker who was shattered by a true story.”

The brothers, who were raised as evangelical Baptists, shopped their script and were met with rejection at every step. “When we took it to the studios, they were scared of it,” Andrew Erwin said. “They said they wouldn’t touch the subject.”

So the brothers, who have worked on music videos for Christian and mainstream musicians including Switchfoot and Taylor Swift, scraped up the production budget from several investors and shot “October Baby,” which costars Jasmine Guy (“A Different World”) and John Schneider (“The Dukes of Hazzard”), in a quick 20 days.

When they tried to sell the finished film to distributors, the message was the same: Thanks, but no thanks. “There was a point of real despair,” Jon Erwin said.

But late last year, Mississippi’s conservative American Family Assn. decided to support a limited “October Baby” release, timed to the state’s anti-abortion ballot initiative that aimed to enshrine in law the idea that life begins at fertilization. (The so-called “personhood” initiative failed.)

The box-office results for “October Baby,” which played in only a handful of Bible Belt cities, were impressive, grossing $7,854 per theater with hardly any promotion and advertising. (By comparison, Will Ferrell’s comedy “Casa de Mi Padre” had per-theater sales of $5,988 while playing in 382 locations last weekend.) “We were shocked by how well people responded to it,” Andrew Erwin said.

So the brothers set out to raise more money from investors, some $3 million, to finance a wider release. Samuel Goldwyn Films, with marketing guidance from Nashville’s Provident Films, is managing the film’s distribution and marketing for a fee. Goldwyn and Provident chose to open the film opposite “The Hunger Games,” believing “October Baby” offers a clear alternative to the latter film’s story about children killing other children.

A number of recent films with evangelical leanings have fared well at the ticket windows. A year ago, the faith-based fatherhood drama “Courageous” grossed more than $34 million in domestic release, while 2008’s “Fireproof,” the story of a troubled marriage, grossed more than $33 million.

Unlike mainstream audiences, who are often induced to buy tickets by television advertisements and theatrical trailers, religious moviegoers are driven more by word of mouth, sometimes from pulpit recommendations. “The faith-based audience is a unique audience,” said Meyer Gottlieb, Goldwyn’s president. “They have to see it, feel it, touch it to make a determination” to attend a given film.

To seed the clouds, Goldwyn and Provident have screened the film about 150 times to church groups and other organizations. The film’s limited television spots are running on networks such as Fox News, the Hallmark Channel and Country Music Television.

“October Baby” will play heavily in the South, while its bookings in big cities, particularly in the Northeast, are more limited. “We’ve been doing this for 10 years now, and we really know where the audience is,” said Kris Fuhr, vice president of Provident, which worked on “Courageous” and “Fireproof.”

Gottlieb, whose company distributed “Fireproof” and 2006’s born-again Christian football film “Facing the Giants,” said that a standard movie opening as wide as “October Baby” would usually appear on about 30 screens in New York and as many as 10 in Dallas. But the ratio for “October Baby” is inverted — it’s premiering in just five New York locations and about 17 in Dallas. “October Baby” will also play in several dozen cities where church groups and college clubs have promised to buy at least 1,000 tickets.

The movie’s debut is being buttressed by an extensive educational effort. The film’s website carries links to an array of anti-abortion material, including an interview with one of the film’s costars, who had an abortion as a young woman. There are also pre-written sermons, one concluding, “If we understand the sanctity of life as God presents it in scripture, from the time a person is a cell to when he becomes a child of God, is all applause to God.”

Andrew Erwin said “October Baby” is not intended to preach to the anti-abortion choir. “My first responsibility is to present an entertaining and engaging story,” he said. But both he and his brother hope the film’s message will resonate well beyond movie theaters.

Said Jon: “The biggest thing we want to do is for people to confront indifference and apathy. This conversation warrants discussion. And I hope we can get it.”