How Angelina Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’ Became a Christmas Smash

Unbroken BTS Behind the Scenes

On paper, “Unbroken,” the story of a bombardier who survives a crash in the Pacific Ocean only to be tortured by his Japanese captors, doesn’t sound much like a Christmas movie.

However, by emphasizing the inspirational elements of the incredible true story and director Angelina Jolie’s work behind the camera, the account of Louis Zamperini’s travails and ultimate triumph became one of the holiday’s biggest openers.

“At this time of year stories about faith and how strong the human spirit is do huge numbers,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations.

Bock compares “Unbroken” to “The Blind Side,” which also drew crowds in the big cities and Middle America by emphasizing uplift. “Unbroken” debuted to $31.7 million over the weekend and has made $47.3 million since opening on Christmas, stunning box office prognosticators who had expected it to make $10 million less than it collected. The oft-repeated mantra in trailers and other promotional materials, “If you can take it, you can make it,” gave the film a quasi-religious, redemptive aura that made it seem seasonally appropriate.

“It’s an inspirational film that played to all the quadrants,” said Nikki Rocco, Universal’s distribution chief. “The studio did an incredible marketing job telling the story of this hero.”

But “The Blind Side” had Sandra Bullock, while “Unbroken” is grounded by newcomer Jack O’Connell. That left Jolie to do the heavy lifting when it came to promoting the picture on “Today” and on the cover of magazines such as Variety. After “Maleficent” became the third biggest film of the year on a global basis, “Unbroken’s” success helps solidify her status as one of the industry’s preeminent movie stars — something that had been questioned given her four-year absence from screens.

“Angeline Jolie, along with Louis Zamperini, is the biggest star of the movie,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Rentrak. “Her name on the film raised awareness higher than it otherwise would have been.”

For Jolie, whose previous directing effort, 2011’s Bosnian War drama “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” sank without a trace, “Unbroken” has opened up fresh career avenues.

“Hollywood is not kind to actresses as they age,” Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “Establishing herself as a viable director commercially and creatively is a huge thing for her career.”

Not everything broke “Unbroken’s” way. Reviews were uneven, and the picture was shut out of the Golden Globes, but the film proved critic- and awards-proof at the multiplexes.

It helped, of course, that Laura Hillenbrand’s book of the same name spent more than 180 weeks on the New York Times bestseller hardcover list — a feat that has been surpassed by only three other nonfiction titles.

Likewise, “The Interview’s” cancellation in the wake of terrorist threats and subsequent rebirth as an arthouse release freed up screens for “Unbroken” and the holiday’s other major release, “Into the Woods.” It also left the marketplace without a film geared at adults. That was good news for “Unbroken,” which had an opening weekend crowd that was 62% over the age of 30.

Then there was the nature of Zamperini’s life story. It’s one that begins with a shiftless childhood before segueing to the Olympics, daring aerial missions, a punishing ordeal floating in a life raft in the middle of the ocean and a lengthy stretch in Japanese prison camps.

“It has a bunch of different story threads, and it manages to catch a lot of different people as a result,” said Contrino. “It’s like ‘Forest Gump’ in the way that it hits a lot of different story lines. There’s the World War II stuff, the prison camp element and the sports stuff. It’s like a couple of movies in one.”

Knowing the challenges it faced in marketing a film without a proven star at the height of awards season, Universal started banging the drum early. In a nice bit of corporate synergy, the studio highlighted a lengthy promo that was narrated by Tom Brokaw during sister division NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics. A month later, the studio brought Jolie to Cinemacon, the annual gathering of exhibitors, to make an extended pitch for the film to theater owners.

“Universal’s unrelenting campaign has a lot to do with its success,” said Bock. “This thing could surpass $100 million. It’s going to have a lot of playability.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Zamperini as a fighter pilot instead of a bombardier. 

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  1. Valerieleyendecker says:

    Ms Jolie did a fantastic job. Oscar in my opinion great movie music actor etc.

  2. William Alfonsi says:

    I will be 92 this month and have tried for 49 years and over 209 young people the possibilities of life. I had: Still work!
    wonderful inspiring teachers from first grade till I graduated in 1942, Education is totally destroyed by
    Washington politics. They ignore we have 16% with mental difficulties totally ignored. I have teachers in my family and have talked to many following rules instead of inspiration of life in 2015.
    I have spent 49 years trying to rekindle a dream of the possibilities of and joy of life 9 or 10 great success’s. Where are Movies like the book being a Warrior in life ??

  3. Joan Janzen says:

    A huge thank you to Angelina Jolie for depicting this man’s life so accurately and professionally, never straying from the truthful events told in his bio. I only wish the events after the war would have been included. His struggle as a returning war vet, his hatred toward his tormentors, his remembrance of his promise to god while lost on the pacific, his miraculous freedom from hate and rescued marriage, his camp for troubled teens, the beautiful way he remained at the death bed of his brother and wife. All of that could be a another complete movie. Thank you once again for allowing this Nan’s life to leave us a legacy.

  4. jim Moore says:

    No you can’t tell it all in a movie, but unfortunately we got an hour of torture and nothing about Zamperini’s amazing spiritual re-birth. The great irony is that this movie would never been made without Jesus. Zamperini was a drunken, wife abusing @hole before he showed up at a Billy Graham crusade. He would have died at 60 from liver disease. Hollywood doesn’t make movies about jerks. There’s no money in it, for one thing.

    This isn’t about Jesus being the only way, though he is. It’s about the facts and reality this movie left out. God forbid Jesus got as much credit as Jolie has. You could imagine all kinds of vets being delivered from alcoholism, nightmares and wife abuse.

  5. Janet Smart says:

    Hillenbrand has battled Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for decades. It took her seven years to write Unbroken because of fatigue. She had many phone conversations with Zamperini but never met him in person. They became extremely close.

    After the book came out, Zamperini was on the east coast where Hillenbrand lives, so he went to her home. They had an emotional meeting. Zamperini then gave her his Purple Heart. He said that she inspired him because she has battled her challenge for decades. He said his challenge was intense, but was for just over two years.

  6. lw1969 says:

    I read the first half of “Unbroken” today. I do not see the things that critics are complaining about. In the film, there was undeniable evidence that Louis was a rascal. There was humor and defiance in the camps. The critics deny this There was plenty of character development and you did care about the characters. I have read repeatedly that the movie is punctuated with blithe terms like “If you can take it, you can make it”. But that isn’t true. It was said exactly twice: when he heard it and when he reminded himself.

    What we have here is an industry that cannot see the film past the director. Their disdain for Angelina Jolie is like a ragged, red slip beneath their prom gowns.

    I also am revolted by the lack of respect that is being given to an Olympic athlete and war veteran who came home from a POW camp to PTSD which he overcame. He then went to on forgive his enemies and to establish programs for troubled youth that changed many lives. And yet the author of this article needs a reason for the success of this movie. Apparently seeing “The Interview” is evidence of patriotism, but “Unbroken” is for the middle aged people who couldn’t physically get in to see “The Interview”.

    Maybe Hollywood will be nice to this aging actress and let her work again as someone’s mother, since she can’t string a film together.

  7. Ally says:

    I also found the movie inspirational and fascinating to watch. It’s one you can see more than once too.

    Some parts were very sad to watch but that is the nature of war. It is not something to make light of in order to spare people from reality.

    People need to lighten up on this woman. She’s entitled to a life without so much hate.

    Louie was a guy who could have hated the world but beyond everything he came out a better person because the chose to put positive energy back out towards others. Some of the haters in the world could benefit from his example and a few critics as well…

  8. frank medley says:

    I found this movie to be a remarkably uplifting story of faith and survival. I believe “Unbroken” will help many people in their own seemingly impossible circumstances to find faith and perserverance. By relative comparison, if Louis Zamperini could withstand a horrific 47 days adrift in the pacific ocean and then his subsequent torture in a Japanese POW camp, then God can help anyone get through anything. The Coen brothers, Ms Jolie and many other great hollywood professionals have brought Louie Zamperini’s story to the big screen in very compelling fashion. I recommend this movie to everyone.

  9. Greg Marotta says:

    Simply put, “Unbroken” is a well told story. On another note, it is refreshing to see Italian Americans portrayed on film as real people rather than as cliched gangsters or Reality TV baboons.

  10. Brooke Balzano says:

    The material for Unbroken sat on the shelves at Universal for 50 years. They have had the rights and it gathered dust. No one had the vision or courage to take on such a daunting task. Until Angelina….thanks to Laura Hillenbrand, bringing it to life more than 4 years ago in her best selling book.
    Obviously difficult decisions had to be made in order to make this a two hour (plus) film. She did an amazing job….especially when you consider the constraints of retelling this epic tale. I’d like to add that she also cut out enough of the gruesome details to allow a wider viewing audience making it PG 13. I’m sure many viewers may have been disappointed, but It’s clear to me that Angie wanted young people to see something of Louie’s inspirational life. Good for her!!!! Maybe someday there will be a Part 2. In the meantime, critics should be praising her and all involved for taking the risk, to tell a story that has moved the hearts of millions and deserves our respect.

  11. Mike says:

    Unbroken is marginal at best. The directing, marginal at best. I’m guessing Jolie’s media advisors and Tony Angelotti, who has been running the Unbroken PR Oscar campaign for almost a year now, are trying to portray this as some big achievement on Jolie’s part. The critics hate this film and after seeing it, it’s no surprise that it’s been shut out of a lot of awards so far. Adam Sadler has also had smash hits. If only he had Jolie’s PR machine.

  12. lw1969 says:

    I just returned from seeing the movie. I do not understand why it is unacceptable that a film about an American Olympian who was a POW and who forgave his captors isn’t enough to appeal to American viewers. What is wrong with this perspective? And it is just disturbing and speaks ill of those who express antagonism towards Jolie that so many wish to humble her by tearing apart the movie. The film had excellent actors who did convey hunger, pain, despair and humiliation. My only complaint was that there wasn’t enough time spent on his life after Japan. But that would have made an even longer movie and likely evoked more criticism. The theater was filled with teens, including mine, who got to see Louis’ story. I would say that Jolie, who was not credited until the very end, accomplished more than many of her critics.

  13. simon says:

    It was terrible but no doubt her pr people pushed to the religious bodies all year and that got the audience in and of course the great book. I found it superficial shallow like a bad news v movie or soap opera.

  14. captbilly says:

    I read the book before seeing the movie, which is always an invitation to being disappointed, and I was… disappointed. I heard from my wife that the original cut by Jolie was 4 hours long, and I suspect that may well have done the book justice, but in 2 hours there was just not enough time to cover the story adequately. You never really feel for the characters incredible hunger, humiliation, physical deterioration or fear in the movie, like you do reading the book. In addition you fell almost none at all for what Zamperini’s family is going through, not knowing for 2 years if their son/brother is dead or alive (he was in fact reported as dead by the Army after 13 months missing).

    I think Jolie may have been better off either splitting the movie into two parts, say up to being captured by the Japanese, then the second part being his amazing recovery from PTSD. Trying to do it all in 2 hours required moving through all the events so fast that none of them seemed nearly as harrowing as they really were. But all in all it is a decent movie, probably much better if you didn’t read the book than if you did.

  15. not a hater, but a realist says:

    A GREAT director?? No, she is not that– at least not yet. In time, perhaps. Jolie’s direction I’d passable… like a tv movie of the week. This is a simple telling of the story — don’t bother looking for new character insights. She deserves credit for finding a good cast and getting this to theaters (no easy feat). I’m re reading the book now to see if she added the Bird’s crying scene. I don’t believe it ever happened in real life. If Jolie’s added it in an effort to humanize this twisted bastard, she should be ashamed.

  16. suzanne Miller says:

    It mesmorized me–I sat wuiet and did not move through the whole mivie–please tell me Hollywood will recognize this film–the liberal press is not nice to this movie-lets hope the liberal stars will put their politics aside and give her credit!!

  17. Vic says:

    Kudos to Angelina for making the effort. The man who lived through years of isolation and torture endured more than most people will ever face… so much more than viewing this movie required.

  18. rich s. says:

    Mr. Lang should know the difference between a large B-24 bomber and a “fighter”…where is his fact checker……………………yes and JFK was on a battleship…not a PT boat………………………………

  19. Jake says:

    The book was a best seller– enough said

  20. Geri says:

    The movie’s a hit because of a religious factor? What a moronic comment. The movie’s a hit because people want to see it. The book was a best seller. The story is compelling. When Hollywood makes movies like this the public does support them.

  21. Micha says:

    And now the Angelina haters try to spin as to why it did so well. It did well because it is a great inspirational story, told by a great director with great actors based on a great book about a great man. Simple. Louis liked the uncut version of the movie about his life that he got to see before he died and the writer liked the job Angelina did with her book. Looks like the public is liking it too. Simple.

  22. Fre says:

    There were several factors that helped this film do what it did first weekend and… it’s surely not good storytelling, nor directing, nor writing nor acting.
    After seeing it, I predict this opening weekend will be it’s best then slide off to the side, as it should.
    Jolie, the Coen brothers and most all involved did this incredible story a ‘disservice’.
    Shame.

  23. ihaiva says:

    good to see japanese stereotypes still give good box-office

  24. MilPilot says:

    He wasn’t a pilot. And he wasn’t in a fighter aircraft.

    Come on Variety. Really?

    • Gregory Leute says:

      Thanks, MilPilot, for your post. As a former military aviator myself, It offends me when journalists are too lazy to do their due diligence and end up parading their ignorance of things military. The late Captain Zamperini would likely have been the first to tell you he was a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator. It seems many contemporary “journalists” (and that’s perhaps an excessively generous moniker when applied to entertainment writers) think anything less than a flashy tag like “fighter pilot” is insufficiently sexy to command our attention. Zamperini’s exploits – on so many levels – far surpass those of most aircrew of any era, specialty, or platform. Yes, even “fighter pilots”. And any aircrew worth their salt would be the first to tell you THAT.

    • John Bellio says:

      Well, Variety didn’t see the film, nor have time to read the book. But they did see some comments on some website.

  25. PETER says:

    I’m glad that a USA military hero film is a huge success and that UNBROKEN specifically is a smash hit! Now all the Angelina haters on Variety comments can shut their stupid mouths.

    • nancy says:

      The movie being a big hit still doesn’t stop the negative spin. In your face jolie haters.

    • General Toy says:

      Maybe backlash from moviegoers to Jolie being maligned by Sony exec as “spoiled brat”?

      • Ken says:

        Or maybe some ticket buyers just didn’t feel like a NIGHT IN THE MUSEUM (again), or sitting thru an unhummable Sondheim musical (INTO THE WOODS), or just didn’t care to journey with Bilbo (THE HOBBIT: PART 14)…or maybe Ms. Jolie’s enormous fan base was curious to see what she’s done behind the camera.

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