Here they come again. In the next month, three new entries in the genre known as Mormon Cinema -- movies made by LDS filmmakers and/or covering LDS themes -- will debut in Utah.
"The Legend of Johnny Lingo," based on a popular BYU-produced short film, gets a lush retelling that opens in theaters today in Utah, and in several markets nationwide. A satire of LDS filmmaking, "The Work and the Story," will debut today in three Utah locations (Logan's CineFour and two comedy clubs, The Independent in Midvale and Johnny B's in Provo) in advance of a planned theatrical release in October. And what may be the granddaddy of Mormon Cinema, "The Book of Mormon Movie, Vol. 1," is set to hit theaters Sept. 12.
More are coming down the pipeline. The makers of "The Singles Ward" will be back with "The Home Teachers" in January and a missionary comedy, "The Best Two Years," in February. A drama about Mormons fighting in World War II, "Saints and Soldiers," is now on the festival circuit.
It's a given that these films will have a built-in following in Utah. But will LDS films and filmmakers find success in the mainstream? Or, more to the point, should they?
John Garbett, one of the producers of "The Legend of Johnny Lingo," said his film has mainstream appeal -- and that it is the movie's roots that are Mormon, not the movie itself.
"We've screened the movie with enough audiences all over the country that we know that it works, and we know that people get it," Garbett said.
The movie already is being sold to non-LDS audiences. It opens today not only in Utah but in Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix and Las Vegas. The movie has been sold to MGM for distribution internationally and through parts of the United States.
"Johnny Lingo" is the story of a South Pacific boy who grows from an outcast to a great island trader -- and keeps a promise to the one girl, the maligned Mahana, who cared for him.
The movie is based on a 1969 short produced by Brigham Young University, which became a favorite for LDS seminary classes. In the BYU version, the girl is known as "Mahana-You-Ugly," and much is made of the trader's payment of a wedding dowry of eight cows -- a high price that raises her self-esteem and makes her feel, and thus look, beautiful.
Though the new version doesn't emphasize the self-esteem lesson, it is a story, Garbett said, "about the power of love."
"The challenge may be for people who are familiar with the BYU version to free their minds, if you will," he said. "The folks who are seeing it outside of the LDS culture are seeing it as a wonderful family film."
Garbett and his producing partner, Gerald R. Molen (who produced "Schindler's List," "Jurassic Park" and "Hook" for Steven Spielberg), came together on the biggest hit in Mormon Cinema, "The Other Side of Heaven." That missionary drama, made for $7 million, earned about $4.7 million at the box office (according to the Web site the-numbers.com) and was snapped up for video distribution by Walt Disney's Buena Vista Home Entertainment.
"We both describe ourselves as filmmakers who happen to be Mormon, rather than Mormon filmmakers," Garbett said.
"The Other Side of Heaven" represents part of the first wave of Mormon Cinema -- along with the missionary dramedy "God's Army" and the small-town murder mystery "Brigham City," the two films by pioneering LDS filmmaker Richard Dutcher.
Dutcher has tried the crossover route, and he doesn't see the need to try it again.
"I don't believe that crossover is absolutely necessary for the survival of the genre," Dutcher said. "In fact, I think it's a pretty healthy little niche, even if it doesn't cross over. It's a pretty loyal audience."
For any niche audience -- black or gay or LDS -- the danger of trying to cross over to a mainstream audience is losing your core, Dutcher said. He cites the example of the video sales of "Brigham City," which were handled by a mainstream distributor. The company marketed that PG-13 movie with cover art befitting an R-rated slasher film -- a real turnoff to the LDS audience.
"What I would have gained in a really concentrated marketing effort on the LDS market, I did not make up in the mainstream audience," Dutcher said.
Dutcher's advice for LDS filmmakers seeking to cross into the mainstream: Just make a good movie, and let the rest sort itself out.
"If they can achieve some excellence in that niche, then there's automatically some crossover," he said.
Crossing over has been of little concern to the people at HaleStorm Entertainment, whose LDS-exclusive comedies "The Singles Ward" and "The R.M." represent Mormon Cinema's second wave.
"It's so much easier to market to a niche," said Jed Ivie, publicist for HaleStorm. "We know where we can find them. We know where the LDS people are. We know where the stakes are."
"The Work and the Story" takes aim at that second wave, what director/star Nathan Smith Jones calls "the gold rush" of LDS filmmakers trying to repeat Dutcher's box-office success of "God's Army" (which made $2.6 million, about 10 times what it cost to make).
The satire is a mock-documentary, following a pretentious LDS filmmaker (played by Jones) trying to claim the mantle of "the Mormon Spielberg" after Dutcher (who plays himself) mysteriously goes missing.
("The Work and the Story" features another constant of LDS films: Kirby Heyborne, who starred in "The R.M.," appeared in "The Singles Ward" and has roles in "The Book of Mormon Movie" and "Saints and Soldiers.")
The script for "The Work and the Story" (the title is a spoof on the popular book series "The Work and the Glory") was written in 2001, just as "Brigham City" was hitting theaters. Some jokes poke fun at the members-only humor of some LDS films (even adding subtitles to explain arcane LDS terms). Other jokes -- like references to a Book of Mormon movie and a World War II LDS film -- are now coming to pass.
"We filmed it a year ago, but it's even funnier now," said Quent Casperson, the movie's producer.
If an LDS movie is going to cross over into the mainstream, it may take satire, said University of Utah writing instructor John-Charles Duffy.
Duffy suggested that the oft-cited example of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" -- a low-budget niche-market movie that made it big -- "involves a lot of satire of the Greek-American community. It's a little hard for me to imagine that happening in Mormon film."
Too much of the humor in Mormon films is "insider humor," Duffy said. "People may have a quick sense of what it means to be Greek-American. I'm not so sure they have that same kind of sense of what it means to be Mormon."
Some LDS filmmakers, though, will still try to change that. The third wave of Mormon Cinema is on.
The Work and the Story" poses an interesting question: If Richard Dutcher, founder of the Mormon cinema movement, disappeared, what would become of the movement? The answer: A lot of bad filmmakers would come out of the woodworks, and they'd make crap like "The Work and the Story."
This is that rare film that deftly (though unintentionally) comments on itself. Its fiction is that Dutcher is missing and presumed dead, leaving wannabes to create new films for Mormon audiences. Alas, most of the wannabes are clueless, and the films are bad.
In the real world, Dutcher HAS disappeared from the movie scene (though he is alive and well), not having made a film since 2001's "Brigham City." And in his absence, sure enough, the market has been flooded with films ranging from the OK ("Out of Step," "Charly") to the bad ("The Singles Ward," "Handcart").
Among the bad is "The Work and the Story," a faux-documentary that wants desperately to be as funny as its fellow mockumentaries -- "This is Spinal Tap" and "Waiting for Guffman," for example -- but that misses some of the crucial elements.
Chief among the problems is that the writer/director, Nathan Smith Jones, casts himself as Peter Beuhmann, the primary wannabe who hopes to fill Dutcher's shoes. Jones may have skills, but they are not in comedic acting. In his hands, Peter is such a grating character, so over-the-top and one-note, that he drastically reduces the film's watchability.
Most of the time, the acting -- from Jones' co-stars, too -- SEEMS like acting. It rarely feels candid and natural like a documentary would. When the actors improvise, it is uncomfortably obvious they are improvising. When they are reciting prepared dialogue, it is embarrassingly obvious they are reciting.
All of this is critical for a movie that must look and feel like a documentary -- like non-fiction, straight from life -- if it's going to work. Yeah, it's funny on paper when Mormon housewife Judy (Jen Hoskins) mentions that she named her sons after Book of Mormon "prophets" while she was inactive in the church, and that the names she chose were Laman and Lemuel. But in practice, I don't buy for a second that Judy is speaking extemporaneously. It sounds instead like Jen Hoskins was given dialogue to read, or at least an idea to express, and that she did it, self-consciously and unnaturally. I'm hearing an actress, not a character.
There are a few amusing moments and some clever ideas, though. Peter's Salieri-like jealousy of Dutcher's work is noteworthy, and I like the idea of Peter being so controlling as a director that he even directs the outtakes that will run over his film's credits. ("No, you're not messing up right!")
Best of all is Eric Artell as Kevin Evans, a young man whose mother disapproves of movies as a whole. His short films (short, as in seven or eight seconds long) are brief bursts of fresh air, and his Book of Mormon war movie -- shot with eggs and stop-motion photography rather than people, to avoid the graphic violence -- is nearly genius. It is definitely the best scene in "The Work and the Story," and I won't be surprised if it's better than the upcoming "Book of Mormon Movie" as a whole.
Some more judicious editing would have been beneficial. Several jokes are ruined by running longer than they should. The first that comes to mind is Kirby Heyborne's ("The R.M.") speech comparing his strict father to working for Peter. Cut him off sooner and you'd have a great monologue. Same with the aforementioned filming of Peter's outtakes. Give us a couple takes, then move on. Don't beat that joke to death.
The lesson here is that just because you CAN make a film doesn't mean you should. It is not as easy as it apparently looks. Improvising isn't less difficult just because it doesn't involve line memorization; some actual skills are necessary, too. This movie needed better actors and a better script (or a more thorough outline). It is, unfortunately, just another reminder of how much we miss Richard Dutcher. Nathan Smith Jones realized Dutcher's work would result in many bad filmmakers coming into the market; he probably didn't realize he would be one of them.
Note: This film is playing in a few non-theatrical venues in Utah. For information on where and when, visit www.theworkandthestory.com.
SALT LAKE CITY - With Mormon cinema in full swing in Utah, new director Nathan Smith Jones felt his story couldn't have come at a better time.
His upcoming film, "The Work and the Story," is a mockumentary about Mormon filmmakers.
"The film has become a lot more prophetic than I ever imagined," said Jones, who wrote and stars in the satire film.
The 36-year-old writer/director came up with the idea for his new film early in the year 2000, before the huge rush of movies in Utah began.
"I've always loved film," Jones said. "When I saw "God's Army" I decided to write a movie about Mormons and how so many of them want to be the next [Steven] Spielberg."
The film takes place in July 2000, four months after the movie "God's Army" stormed through Utah theaters. In the plot, the director of "God's Army," Richard Dutcher, is missing. The story is about three eager filmmakers who are striving to take his place.
Since the release of "God's Army" several films about the lifestyles of the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been made.
"In the story there are filmmakers who want to make a 'Book of Mormon' movie," Jones said. "They also have ideas about a movie that takes place in a singles ward. It is so much more relevant now that movies have been made on this subject."
"I think people will like it because it is coming at a perfect time," said Kirby Heyborne, who plays a production assistant in the film.
A mockumentary is a film in the format of a documentary, but the story is fictitious. Common to these types of films, the actors improvise while on camera.
"The stars of this film are some of the best talent I've seen in the state of Utah," Jones said.
While Jones is credited for writing most of the script, the actors in his movie created their own dialogue right on the spot.
"We improvised a lot," Jones said. "About 60 percent of the story was written, but that means the other 40 percent of the script came completely from the actors while on camera."
Jones is now gearing up for the Oct. 3 release of "The Work and the Story" at the Windsong 12 movie theater in Provo. In the mean time, his film can be seen at Johnny B's in Provo.
With many films about the Church of Jesus Christ in circulation, audiences are prepared to appreciate the humor of "The Work and the Story."
"Now that Utah is saturated with Mormon movies, they will find how the making of these movies is pretty hilarious," Heyborne said.
One of the greatest struggles and sacrifices for filmmakers trying to have success in LDS film is finding financing.
"It turns out that Mormons love their money just as much as other people do," said Richard Dutcher, the first filmmaker in the LDS film genre with "God's Army" and later "Brigham City."
Much of the money comes out of filmmakers' own pockets. Nathan Jones, director of "The Work and the Story," paid for nearly half of his $150,000 production costs himself.
LDS filmmakers don't usually have a lot of discretionary money to spend on their films and must rely heavily on independent investors, but investors didn't usually come without hard work.
It's hard to get funding because business school teaches people never to invest in films or restaurants, said Dave Hunter of Halestorm Entertainment who created "The Singles Ward" and "The RM."
When Halestorm was initially looking for investors, their only guarantee to them was that they'd lose all their money. With the success of "The Singles Ward," funding for "The RM" and "The Home Teachers," came much easier. They mainly get funding from the local rich LDS people.
It is not only rich people who invest. The investors for Gary Rogers, producer, director and writer of "The Book of Mormon Movie," are wealthy, but not rich. They are normal people with a little bit of discretionary money who would be hurt if they lost the money, Rogers said.
Investors sometimes come in the form of friends who believe in the producer's work. A few of Jones's friends from Los Angeles helped fund his project. He got $25,000 from one friend to allow him to shoot it on film and make it into a real production. He received varying amounts of money from other friends and he slowly got enough to fund the film.
"It really does take a village to make a movie," Jones said.
Filmmakers must work hard to get investors. They all want to see the details of the project and a business plan. They want to know that they'll get a return on their investment. Even if they enjoyed the concepts of the movie and laughed, many were still not willing to take a risk, Jones said...
...So far, more than 15 LDS-themed movies have been produced for theaters since the success of "God's Army" in 2000, and a half-dozen or so others are planned for the next year. Two will hit theaters in the next two weeks: the mock-documentary "The Work and the Story" and the courtroom drama "Day of Defense."...