A few producers see potential in films that have Christian themes but don't preach
Frustrated with Hollywood, which has shied away from making films with spiritual themes or religious characters, a handful of independent producers are striking out on their own to make Christian-themed films that seek to entertain more than preach.
"There are a lot of people within the religious community that are just hungering for a high-quality film with a spiritual message," says Bob Beltz, a Presbyterian minister from Littleton, Colo., and co-producer of "Joshua," which will be released next month. Based on the novel of the same name (which sold 10 million copies), "Joshua" is a G-rated, modern-day parable about a mysterious stranger's effect on the lives of the residents of a small Midwest town.
Mitch Davis directed the recently opened "The Other Side of Heaven" (2001), based on Elder John Groberg's memoirs of his adventures as a Mormon missionary on the South Pacific island nation of Tonga in the 1950s. "It was never our intent to make a movie for Mormons," Davis says. "It was always our intent to make a movie for the world and for a general audience. We're not trying to proselytize with this movie at all, but we're not trying to hide what it's about, either." The hope of these filmmakers and independent producers is that films such as "Joshua" and "The Other Side of Heaven" can build on a grass-roots support within the Christian community and cross over to a more mainstream audience, unlike past independent releases such as "The Omega Code" and "Left Behind: The Movie."
Thanks to evangelical moviegoers, those films were financially successful--"Omega Code" grossed $12.6 million and "Left Behind" sold 2.5 million copies on video, followed by $4.2 million at the box office--but were lacking in production values and were poorly reviewed in the nonreligious press.
Those films, "Joshua" director Jon Purdy says, were "kind of fear-based. They're post-apocalyptic." He says "Joshua" is more hopeful. "It's attempting to portray faith in a positive way. And I think there's a big question in there as to whether or not hope sells versus fear."
"The Other Side of Heaven" has already grossed $2 million since December from a regional release in Utah, Idaho and Texas--states with large Mormon communities--despite never having played on more than 50 screens at once.
That encouraged Excel Entertainment to give the film a national release April 12 on several hundred screens. The film, though panned by major critics, cracked the top 20 and has so far grossed $3.5 million. Artisan Entertainment, which is distributing "Joshua," also wanted to build word-of-mouth with an unorthodox release pattern. Before moving into larger metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, where advertising costs are much higher, it is releasing the film first in areas where religious-themed films have done well.
"Joshua" opened April 19 on 220 screens in 11 states, mostly in the South and Southwest. The film will widen to another 50 cities on Friday and will reach New York and Los Angeles on May 24. "Joshua" is reaching out to mainstream moviegoers with the usual television and newspaper ads, as well as targeting churchgoers with mailings, Web sites and screenings for religious press and leaders. A soundtrack with Christian artists such as Jaci Velasquez, Pete Orta and Point of Grace was put together, and best-selling Christian singer-songwriter Michael W. Smith was brought in to score his first film.
Other independently funded, spiritually themed films have found it a challenge to entice nonreligious moviegoers. The boxing drama "Carman: The Champion," from early last year, grossed only $1.8 million and the wholesome extreme-sports film "Extreme Days" managed only $700,000 last fall.
"Megiddo: The Omega Code 2" (2001), which carried a significantly higher budget--$22 million--than the first, finished with a disappointing $6 million.
Excel's first release, "God's Army" (2000), a drama about Mormon missionaries in Los Angeles, grossed a profitable $2.6 million, but its director Richard Dutcher's darker follow-up, "Brigham City" (2001), made only $800,000.
One encouragement, ironically, has been the success earlier this year of a major studio picture: Warner Bros.' $40-million-grossing "A Walk to Remember," which featured a devout main character and was marketed, in part, to Christian audiences.
Yet, as much as Davis admired that film, "they didn't ever dare in the entire film to say what [the producer of 'A Walk to Remember'] called 'the J-word' and they never dared show anyone praying, because they were afraid to," Davis says.
Budgeted at $8.5 million, "Joshua" is based on the first in a series of novels by the Rev. Joe Girzone. Beltz, minister, co-producer and an author himself, first read the book in 1985 and optioned the movie rights when they became available two years ago.
The film was shot in 23 days near Chicago and briefly in Rome. Director Purdy, who has written scripts exploring religion but doesn't describe himself as religious, was brought in.
"Having someone like me on board probably helped prevent the movie from going in the direction of its worst tendencies and helped create a movie that functions on a dramatic level, that still makes the statements that they wanted to make," he says.
Casting the role of Joshua, a woodcarver who starts rebuilding the town's storm-ravaged Baptist church and draws the ire of a Roman Catholic priest (F. Murray Abraham), was crucial.
"Playing Jesus or someone who might be Jesus is not the sort of thing that a lot of actors want to do," Purdy says. Deciding to cast someone who looked different from the iconic image of Jesus, the filmmakers turned to actor-director Tony Goldwyn, best known for his villainous roles in films such as "Ghost," "The Pelican Brief" and "Kiss the Girls."
Unlike the book, in which Joshua is more of a leader and outright preacher whose identity is apparent early on, Goldwyn in the film "portrays this character just as a person who is admirable and someone you like--someone that does good works but doesn't force it on anyone," Purdy says.
Also, the book's rants against the Catholic bureaucracy and calls for reform were mostly left out of the film. "A real effort was made to dramatize the message and not sermonize it," Purdy says.
"The Other Side of Heaven's" path to the screen started when director Davis read Groberg's 1994 book, "In the Eye of the Storm," and was enthralled with the portrait of Polynesian life seen through the eyes of a callow young man from Idaho. Davis purchased the movie rights and wrote the screenplay, drawing on the memoirs and the saved correspondence between Groberg, now 68, and his family and future wife, Jean, played in the film by Anne Hathaway ("The Princess Diaries").
Davis, a former studio executive who was a missionary in Argentina in the late 1970s, had long wanted to make a film about the missionary experience. "We live in a world where most guys 19 to 21 years of age are hanging out at frat parties with a six-pack and coeds, and while my buddies were doing that I was in this foreign land trying to learn a foreign language, coming of age in a really quick way and in a very profound way," he says. "The Other Side of Heaven" was budgeted at $7 million and filmed in New Zealand and the Cook Islands over 10 weeks.
Christopher Gorham, who plays Groberg, is a non-practicing Protestant who knew little about the Mormon faith before he was cast. He says he learned that the young missionaries are "not a bunch of crazy zealots out trying to ruin cultures. They're young kids and they're idealists and they believe in what they're doing."
But the film is more a coming-of-age story than a religious tract. "It's an adventure and a love story that happens to be about a guy who is a missionary," Davis says.
"The Mormon Church itself isn't really discussed that often in the movie," says Gorham, who was a cast member on the TV series "Popular" and will be in the new Showtime sci-fi series "Odyssey 5" this summer. "I wasn't interested in doing a church film--something that would be shown at all the temples, you know?"
In fact, Davis says, there has been no official support from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which historically has chosen to stay away from commercial ventures.
The companies behind "Joshua" and "The Other Side of Heaven" are banking on families looking for morally uplifting entertainment. Epiphany Films is already developing a sequel to "Joshua" based on another book in the series, "Joshua in the Holy Land," "a story that's obviously extremely relevant today," Beltz says. A prequel with a younger Joshua is also being discussed.
Later this year, Artisan will release the Christian-themed "Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie," the first theatrical film of the popular animated direct-to-video series.
Excel is developing director Dutcher's next project, "The Prophet," based on the life of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith Jr. Parent company Crusader Entertainment is also producing family-oriented dramas with less of an overt spiritual component, including "Swimming Upstream," with Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis, about a champion Australian swimmer overcoming a troubled family life, and "Children on Their Birthdays," based on a Truman Capote short story about kids during the Depression, with Christopher McDonald and Sheryl Lee.
Davis, for one, thinks it's high time for a return to making films like "Places in the Heart," "Chariots of Fire" and "Lilies of the Field," "movies that all have a sort of religious element to it without ever making me feel like, 'Oh wow, they want to make me one of them.'"
"How ironic it is that we live in a culture or a society where it's perfectly acceptable to make a movie that helps you get inside the head of a cannibal, and it's kind of hip and politically correct to make that movie, but to make a movie where you try to get inside of the head of someone who believes in God is taboo."
LDS Cinema marches on, again.
A genre that scarcely existed two years ago, when Richard Dutcher's "God's Army" hit Utah screens and spread across the country, now is popping up everywhere.
Two more LDS-themed movies arrive in Utah in the next month: the romance "Charly" on Friday and the pioneer drama "Handcart: The Movie" on Oct. 11. The current issue of Newsweek has a short item, headlined "Mormons: They're a Laugh Riot," that mentions how the success of "The Singles Ward" has spawned eight more LDS-themed comedies -- including Nathan Smith Jones' in-the-works mockumentary of the genre, "The Work and the Story," which (if the film's Web site is not itself a spoof) also stars Dutcher.
It sometimes seems as if everybody who ever took a film course at BYU or the University of Utah saw "God's Army," said to themselves, "Hey, my buddies and I can do that!", grabbed their camcorders and hit the town.
But in the evolution of any movie niche -- whether it's African-American films, Latino films, gay films or LDS cinema -- there comes a crucial point where "we're making a movie about us!" doesn't cut it anymore. The novelty has worn off, and audiences who flocked to "God's Army" and "The Other Side of Heaven" will start expecting more.
LDS filmmakers will have to learn to grow on the job. Here is a little unsolicited advice, in 10 easy steps:
Step 1: Broaden your horizons. Stories that speak only to the faithful will get you an audience of a certain size, but no more. If you put LDS characters within universal stories, the LDS audience will stay -- and non-Mormons won't feel alienated, and they may even learn a few things about an unfamiliar culture.
Step 2: Take your time. The best thing you can do for your movie is to rewrite the script a few times, polish it until it gleams. Here's the beauty part: Rethinking your script, if you do it before you start production, doesn't cost you a dime.
Step 3: Think digitally. If you have a limited budget (and everybody who ever made a movie had a limited budget), the new high-tech cameras may help you spend it more wisely. Think about this: If the bulk of your revenue will come from video sales, and digital-to-film transfers are cheap, why spend a lot of money on pricey 35mm film?
Step 4: Think cinema- tically. On the other hand, if you're shooting in the South Pacific (like "The Other Side of Heaven") or a historic epic (like Dutcher's in-the-works Joseph Smith biopic), only film will do.
Step 5: Hire real actors. So your roommate at BYU acted in the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti -- big deal. There are plenty of people in Utah (and, for that matter, out of Utah) who carry both a SAG card and a temple recommend in their wallets. Hire them.
Step 6: Assemble a professional crew. Alas, some LDS-themed movies I have seen were missing that certain something -- like a focus puller or a decent sound mix. Utah film crews are among the best in the country, as the Utah Film Commission likes to remind us. Try shooting your movie in May or June, when the productions of "Touched by an Angel" and (if they make it through a full season) "Everwood" go on summer hiatus. Those guys are good and often looking for work during the break.
Step 7: Know your core market. The "Out of Step" folks made a good movie, then released it in mid-February at one Salt Lake-area theater -- when most of the target audience was paying attention to the Olympics. It was a hard lesson, but they learned it well, re-releasing their movie last month at several theaters.
Step 8: Listen to the local critics. We are your first impartial audience and will provide the first honest appraisal your movie will get. We know the culture you are depicting, so we can tell you how well it may translate to a mass audience. Don't just blow us off and say, "Oh, they don't get it" -- believe me, we get it.
Step 9: Listen to the national critics. Movie critics (the ones who aspire to be good ones, anyway) do not trash movies just to see how clever and cruel they can be. We do it because we want the movies to be better.
Step 10: Don't try to make the best LDS movie. Just try to make the best movie. The rest will sort itself out.
SALT LAKE CITY -- Odds are long that any of the LDS-themed movies flooding Utah screens will duplicate the small-budget, big-return success of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," a $5 million movie that's earned more than $185 million -- so far -- at the box office.
LDS moviemakers may be holding out for crossover appeal. But even if they don't make $100 million, a market filled with the state's religious majority is sure to keep cameras rolling.
But critics are complaining, and some of the genre's own directors fear quality is succumbing to quantity.
Richard Dutcher, known among the denomination's cinema aficionados as the "Mormon Spielberg," is unhappy with the small movie trend he started with the film "God's Army," a tale about missionaries working in Los Angeles which cost $240,000 but netted $2.6 million.
"I wanted it to bring all these LDS filmmakers and writers out of the woodwork. But now that I see how it's gone, however, I'd like some of them to go back into the woodwork," Dutcher said.
Seven LDS-themed films have popped up on local screens since 2000, and the trend of independent movies about and for members of the faith is building momentum.
The films have a 1950s sensibility about them, unsurprising given that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are discouraged from watching R-rated films. Sex, swearing and graphic violence are all absent.
Recent works have included an earnest film about LDS missionaries, a murder-mystery and a romantic-comedy. Five more films are expected to open here this spring.
"The Singles Ward," a guy-meets-girl romantic comedy, is essentially a series of inside jokes about Mormons, from the scrap-booking opening credits (Mormons love scrap-booking) to good-natured jabs at the church's polygamist past.
For example, at one point the romantic lead turns to the camera and complains about the reaction from fellow church members to being dumped by his wife: "Our ancestors were able to handle four or five wives and you can't handle one? What's the deal?"
Dutcher had hoped the success of his movie would draw out the faithful within the entertainment business. Instead, he says, it spawned a series of poorly made movies with an LDS stamp.
Sean Means, movie reviewer for the state's largest newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune, says films like "The Singles Ward," "Handcart" and "Charly" mark a sophomore slump for LDS cinema. They're plagued by bad scripts and boring plots, he says.
Because they aren't good enough to succeed elsewhere, Means says, they end up being marketed squarely at locals. And there's enough of an audience here to pull down a profit; the church claims 70 percent of Utah residents.
"The Singles Ward" was made for $400,000 and made almost $1.5 million, said director and producer Kurt Hale. Now there are 200,000 copies at video stores.
Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Eggett's family is a perfect example of what moviemakers have in mind when they eye an LDS audience.
When "The Other Side of Heaven" -- the story of a farm kid who becomes a missionary in the remote Tongan islands -- hit theaters, Jennifer's grandmother declared it a family movie night for all 36 members of the clan.
Jennifer said she liked the movie. "It made me cry. It's good for people to know the real truth about Mormons."
But critics will be critics.
"At the moment the mindset is: It's a movie about Mormons, let's go see it," Means said. "But a few more movies of questionable quality and they'll get over it."
Thomas Baggaley, who runs the Web site www.ldsfilms.com [sic: the actual URL, presented correctly in the "On the Net" section after the article, is "ldsfilm.com"], agrees that too many LDS directors are banking on a guaranteed LDS audience.
"They weren't saying come watch the film because it's a good film, they were saying come see this film so there can be more of these films. I don't think that argument is going to work for very long," Baggaley said.
"Now we have more films about us and it's not such a novelty. And that's a good thing. That will force the films to become better," he predicted.
Hale will release two more Mormon-themed comedies. The first -- "The R.M.," about a return missionary -- will hit Utah in January. The other -- "Church Ball," about church basketball leagues -- will be out in January 2004.
There's no shortage of material, or self-deprecating humor, Hale said. "We can make 50 movies based on how strange we are."
On the Net:
Richard Dutcher's production site: http//:www.zionfilms.com
Kurt Hale's production site: http://www.halestormentertainment.com
A large crowd of movie-goers wait in line for popcorn and tickets to the newest attraction to come since snow hit Rexburg.
These film-goers aren't dying to see an action film, or the latest Sarah Michelle Gellar drama.
They are in line to see the latest in a film frenzy that has swept Utah, Idaho and other states: Mormon cinema.
More commonly referred to as LDS cinema, the movies and directors of these films try to portray aspects of Latter-day Saint lives.
What types of films draw attention to Latter-day Saints? In the last two years, Mormon film-makers such as Richard Dutcher have attracted large audiences to productions such as God's Army, Out of Step, Singles Ward, and most recently, Handcart.
Mormon movies have been creating audiences in Rexburg. A sign on La Jolla Apartments advertised annual contracts and an opportunity to "be an extra in the new movie Church Ball!"
Due to lack of interest the sign will be taken down soon and is not in effect any longer.
Local BYU-I students have contrasting views of the new LDS genre. Shawna Hulme, a sophomore from Danville, Calif., said there are good as well as bad elements of Mormon Cinema.
"There are some parts that aren't funny, [and] when [nonmembers] watch it, they may get a tinted view of what our religion really is," she said.
Some parts of LDS Cinema, such as jokes among missionaries or members praying, may offend those who feel these things should not be made light, she said.
The most successful of the Mormon movies are God's Army and Brigham City, according to www.ldsfilm.com. In 2000, Dutcher began as a pioneering director of God's Army, making approximately $2,628,000 after using a $300,000 budget. This comes to a profit of about $2,328,000, showing a demand for more LDS cinema.
In contrast, The Other Side of Heaven made half as much money (about $4 million) as it took to produce. The movie cost approximately $7 million to make.
A new movie comes out sometime this month called The RM, directed by Kurt Hale.
The movie takes a humorous look at the life of a 22-year old young man who comes back to the real world after serving a mission.
With the 2000 premiere of "God's Army," the story of the struggles of missionaries in Los Angeles, the nation was hit by a new genre of film -- the Mormon movie.
Since then, numerous movies with Latter-day religious undertones, including "The Singles Ward," "Brigham City" and "Charly," have graced the screens.
The more popular LDS movies are available at most local video stores. Blockbuster assistant manager Judie Meyers said "Brigham City" and "The Singles Ward" are often checked out. When the store's distributor didn't include The Singles Ward in its recent shipments, Meyers said, the local store went out and bought copies just to meet rental demand.
"We had to go out and buy four copies," she said. "There's always at least one checked out."
Although they serve a primarily LDS audience, "Charly" screenwriter Janine Gilbert said, the themes of her movie can touch anyone.
"We tried to make it accessible to all audiences," Gilbert said. "I think the themes are universal. It asks us to think about what is most important in our lives."
The film, "Charly," based on a novel by Jack Weyland, is a romance story about a couple from different walks of life, and the troubles they face as a family.
Director Adam Thomas Andregg read the novel as a teen and fell in love with the story. The book, he said, addressed serious issues like death in a way he had never seen before.
"It was a very emotional experience. It was a very unexpected experience," he said.
Charly is currently playing at the Centre Theatre in Idaho Falls, and will open Jan. 24 in theaters in California, Arizona and Alaska. The movie will hit major cities on the East Coast later this year and will come out on video after it leaves theaters.
Andregg said most people who go to the movie are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but they, like all movie-goers, simply want to see a good film. Gilbert said the movie is something a family can do together.
"It gives audience members a chance to reconnect as a family," she said.
Pocatello First University Stake President Scott Waldram hasn't seen "Charly" or other LDS movies, but has heard his congregation rave about comedies like "The Singles Ward," a movie about LDS single life.
Most people, he said, turn to LDS movies because they want to see a good movie without the lewd nature of many mainstream films.
"I think they'd like to go to a movie and feel good about it afterwards," he said.
Church member Ryan Bitton saw "The Singles Ward" twice.
"I really enjoyed it," he said. "I laughed."
LDS Movies Available on Video:
- Brigham City: Peace in a small Utah town is shattered when Sheriff Wes Clayton discovers a dead woman on the roadside. Clayton, an LDS bishop, must solve the mystery and keep the town together.
- God's Army: The story of young Mormon missionaries in Los Angeles, and their trials and triumphs.
- The Singles Ward: The Singles Ward is a comedy about the struggles of a newly-divorced returned missionary adjusting to single life in the LDS Church.
For hundreds more LDS film titles, check out www.ldsfilm.com.
On the big screen
- Charly, a movie based on the novel by Brigham Young University-Idaho physics professor Jack Weyland, is playing at the Centre Theater in Idaho Falls tonight at 6:45 p.m. The movie is a double feature with Tuck Everlasting. For more information, call 525-3340.
- Handcart, the fictional story of Samuel Hunter, a man whose faith is challenged as he makes an arduous trek to Utah with the ill-fated Martin Handcart Company, is showing at the Paramount Theater in Idaho Falls at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. For more information call 523-1142.
Kurt Cox, an employee at Blockbuster Video, restocks DVDs of "The Singles Ward" next to the DVD "Brigham City," two of the LDS movie titles they carry.
Cover of "The Singles Ward" DVD.
Latter-day Saints are becoming a popular focus for movies, causing both excitement and controversy within the LDS community.
"It sometimes seems as if everybody who took a film course at BYU or the University of Utah saw 'God's Army' and said to themselves, 'Hey, my buddies and I can do that!' grabbed their camcorders and hit the town," Sean Means said in a review of the LDS movie trend in The Salt Lake Tribune.
BYU students, a target audience of LDS filmmakers, have much to say on the subject.
"[The movies are] funny and I think so far they've been within OK boundaries," said MBA student John Wester from Boise, Idaho. "You hope they don't step over that line where you're taking sacred things too light."
Wester, however, has only seen "Singles Ward." Many students argue that some other LDS films have already crossed that line.
"I didn't like 'God's Army,'" said Josh Aston, a junior from Burley, Idaho, majoring in history. "I think some things relating to missionary work don't need to be portrayed to the public, such as priesthood blessings. My mission sure wasn't like that."
Susan Curtis, a junior from Glendale, Wis., majoring in marriage, family and human development said she thought parts of "God's Army" were blasphemous.
Yet many filmmakers said they have tried to stay away from controversy. The makers of "Singles Ward" said they purposefully avoided displaying anything about Latter-day Saint religion.
"Singles Ward" director Kurt Hale said the movie didn't show any prayers or ordinances because there is not anything funny about those things and they aren't something that should be shown in a movie.
However, Mormon culture is something completely different, he said.
"Frankly there was just a lot of comedy staring us in the face, so we thought, 'Hey let's take a crack at it,'" he said.
Richard Dutcher, the director of "God's Army" said he isn't happy with the trend of LDS films.
"We finally get a chance to say something, and we're just reinforcing stereotypes," Dutcher said.
But BYU students expressed support.
"I like it because it provides entertainment that's a good alternative to what Hollywood puts out," said accounting major Andrew Averett, a sophomore from Springville.
As yet, church officials haven't offered a position on films with LDS subjects, Hale said.
However, Hale said David B. Haight's wife loved "Singles Ward," and President Gordon B. Hinckley's personal secretary called Hale and said President Hinckley wanted a copy of the DVD.
"As a people we've come far enough to kind of have a good time with our cultural peculiarities," Hale said.
The LDS film trend doesn't appear to be ending anytime soon. "The RM," directed by Hale, hits theaters Thursday. Another comedy titled "Church Ball" is scheduled for release in January 2004.
"We can make 50 movies based on how strange we are," Hale said.
Question: What was the first commercial LDS-themed film ever produced?
b) "God's Army"
c) "Together Forever"
Answer: "Legacy" and "Together Forever," while LDS, are hardly commercial. And while "God's Army" was the first successful LDS-produced film, the honor of creating the first commercial LDS film belongs to Lester Park, for his feature length film "Corianton," which hit Utah theatres in 1931.
So why have most of us never heard of the film? Because "Corianton" was a complete flop. Author, Orson Scott Card, grandson of Lester Park, discusses his grandfather's experience.
"He learned the Cecil B. DeMille formula which is, you have a scriptural story that is inspirational at its ending, but you have some sex along the way. So he chose the one story in the Book of Mormon that has any sex in it... But the reason it flopped in Utah is because Mormons were outraged."
And the phenomenon continues today.
LDS films such as Dutcher's "God's Army" and "Brigham City," along with HaleStorm Entertainment's "The Single's Ward" and "The RM," leave some anti-Hollywood Mormons with bitter-herb aftertastes of irreverence and even blasphemy.
Some complain about showing blessings, baptisms, or sacrament meetings. Some complain about pop rock hymns. Others, still, complain about the quality of the films, vying [sic] never to see an LDS film until it opens in theatres across the country with a couple big names attached.
Adjunct Film and Multi-Media Professor, Alex Nibley explains how Dutcher's film "Brigham City" was one of the most highly acclaimed independent films of 2001, garnering rave reviews from L.A. Times and New York Times writers.
Yet it was rejected by its targeted LDS audience.
A quick comparison shows "God's Army" cost $250,000 to produce, and grossed $2.6 million. "Brigham City" on the other hand cost $3 million to produce, but has grossed only $850,000. [webmaster: these figures are not correct]
"I don't think it was accepted," says Nibley, "because it dealt with aspects of Mormon culture that made the audience feel pretty uncomfortable. All people go to movies to get away from their lives. But the best movies are the ones that get us into our lives, that give us a deeper understanding of who we are and how we relate. That's unnerving for some people. The Mormon church still has a persecution complex, even in Utah where it has been the privileged majority for over 150 years."
Commercial LDS films of note include: "God's Army," "Brigham City," "The Other Side of Heaven," "The Singles Ward," "Out of Step," "Charly," "Handcart," and "The RM." Scores of LDS films are currently under production as BYU film graduates try to produce films fast enough to write their story on the plates of gold that Dutcher has unearthed.
It may surprise many to know that Mormon's and cinema have had a long standing relationship. Mormon actors have appeared in films from "The Shaggy Dog," to "Erin Brokovich," (no pun intended). And would have guessed that Brigham Young's grandson, Waldermar Young, (well, one of them anyway), has over 75 screenplays to his name, including a nod for an Academy Award in 1935. Young's list of works include titles such as "Compromised," "Sinners in the Sun," and "The Trail of '98," (1898, that is).
For more information on LDS films, including a list of scheduled releases, please visit http://ldsfilm.com, a plain and simple, no-nonsense guide to LDS films.
SIERRA VISTA -- In three years, a growing list of theater-release films featuring characters who just happen to be members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or centered on church-related themes have hit movie screens across North America, including one such film -- so far -- that has played in Sierra Vista.
Film distributors say two more might follow suit soon.
Among the offerings are: "God's Army," "Brigham City," "Handcart," "The Other Side of Heaven," "Out of Step," "The Singles Ward," "Charly," "The R.M.," "Suddenly Unexpected" and "The Work and the Story."
Many have played across Arizona and the West from Washington to California and Nevada to New Mexico -- sometimes showing up in North American theaters as far away as Ontario, Canada, and in movie houses in sunny Hawaii.
Just as one needn't be Jewish to enjoy "Fiddler on the Roof" or a member of the Greek Orthodox church to relate to the humor in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," one needn't be LDS, more commonly referred to as "Mormon," to enjoy LDS cinema.
In fact, some of the strongest local supporters of the burgeoning LDS film genre are not LDS.
"It's something of historical value, you don't have to be LDS at all," longtime Sierra Vista resident Lee Skinner said of Kels Goodman's "Handcart," which is currently playing in Show Low and opens in Safford and Mesa on Friday.
Skinner married into the Echave family, one that boasts 100 years of heritage in the area and about 300 extended family members from Sierra Vista to Bisbee.
He and the majority of the rest of the Skinner and Echave clan are Catholic, he said.
The exception to the rule is Skinner's son Pete, who embraced the LDS faith years ago and is now raising his family accordingly.
When the Skinners and Echave families learned that Pete's 21-year-old daughter, Shannon, landed a role in a film about the ill-fated Martin Handcart Co. that made the trek West in the mid-1800s when the "Mormon Pioneers" opened much of the West to escape religious persecution, they couldn't wait to see it.
"I watched it and I really enjoyed it," said John Skinner, Shannon's paternal uncle. "Clearly it is a movie about part of our nation's history. It's certainly a part of our history I was totally unaware of. I had no idea people made their way West using hand carts.
"In movies you typically see stage coaches, and wagons, and it is unimaginable the strain and stress and the courage it took to make the trek."
The Skinners came into possession of a videocassette version of a rough cut of the film last month when the film's director and producer agreed to grant Shannon's grandmother's dying wish during a 13-month battle with lung cancer.
The video arrived a few days after Nancy's death on Jan. 13. Within a week, a handful of family members gathered around to see what Grandma hadn't been able to view before she died.
"I know my mom was smiling in heaven," John Skinner said. "I know she watched it as well, because she was so proud of Shannon, as she is of all (eight) of her grandchildren."
While John Skinner admits his interest in the film began with pride in his niece, he said it is not where it ends.
"I think what impressed me the most was the hardship these people endured as they made their way to Utah," he said. "The weather conditions were extreme, and here they were with these little handcarts and what little belongings they had making their way across what is challenging terrain in the best of weather conditions."
John Skinner said he was impressed with "the commitment, endurance, and faith that inspired them to keep going."
"I am Roman Catholic," he said. "This isn't a movie about religion. This is a movie about endurance and faith and commitment."
Goodman, who handles his own distribution, credited Shannon Skinner's ties to Northern Arizona where she attended school for its appearance in theaters there. He said her large contingency of family members in Southeastern Arizona, along with an audience base of 1,500 members of LDS congregations, in the area might bring "Handcart" to Sierra Vista.
Goodman said he must take a "wait-and-see" approach depending on the film's performance in other Arizona theaters before committing to book it in local theaters.
John Skinner, who visited his mother shortly before she died and attended her funeral, said he would like to see "Handcart" play in theaters back home in Wichita Falls, Texas.
"The movie left me wanting to learn more about the handcarts and the companies that went to Utah, so I am, actually, as things settle down, looking forward to getting on the Internet and learning more," he said.
Goodman said he won't be able to accommodate John's request to bring "Handcart" to Wichita Falls.
Goodman isn't the only LDS film distributor considering bringing a movie production to Sierra Vista.
Mary Jane Jones, spokeswoman for Excel Entertainment, said there is a possibility that Sierra Vistans might get the chance to view Jack Weyland's "Charly" without making the trek to the Phoenix area, where it has been playing from Glendale to Mesa since Jan. 24. The movie is a wholesome romance between a New York artist and a college student from Salt Lake City. It is based on Weyland's best-selling novel originally set in the 1980s, but updated for the new millennium.
Again, the ability to convince local theater managers that local support exists will be key in whether or not the movie will be shown in Sierra Vista, Jones said.
Considering the support local congregation members awarded "The Other Side of Heaven" when it played here for 10 days last April, however, chances appear to be good.
Nancy Thornburg and her family, including her 17-year-old daughter Katie, attend the Sierra Vista Second Ward. The family was a major force behind building that support, as well as Brian Manwaring, who teaches the seminary religion class Katie attends daily across the street from Buena High School.
The Thornburgs and Manwaring, at the request of Excel Entertainment, handed out promotional handbills and flyers to friends and associates from Sierra Vista to Douglas to drum up interest. The movie is based on "In the Eye of the Storm," a book by LDS general authority John Groberg, who chronicled unusual missionary experiences in the South Pacific in his book, including brushes with death and a native temptress. A general authority is someone who is part of the church's main worldwide hierarchy based in Salt Lake City.
"I was so tickled we could do anything to promote that movie," Thornburg said. "It was so good. We went twice."
Soon, she'll be able to watch it at home, along with other LDS films in her family's collection. On April 1, Disney will release "The Other Side of Heaven,"starring Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries) and Christopher Gorham, on VHS and DVD.
Nancy Thornburg's loyalty goes beyond uplifting entertainment, which she whole heartedly supports. She roomed one summer at Brigham Young University with one of Groberg's daughters before flying back home with her to Hawaii where she worked for LDS Social Services (now known as LDS Family Services), and often filled in as a baby-sitter for the Groberg's 11 children.
"It is a really good movie," Thornburg said of Mitch Davis' "The Other Side of Heaven." As for the potential local market for "Handcart," "Charly" and any other LDS films that might come along, "People who like a movie with values who know they can sit back and be edified will come," she said, adding that in today's world, she is glad to be able to add LDS movie soundtracks to her daughter's CD collection to help keep Katie on track spiritually.
Manwaring said he hopes major movie houses will take notice of the growing proven market potential for uplifting films.
John Skinner agreed.
"It's nice to go and see a wholesome film with values that apply to all of us, without regard to what your beliefs are," he said. "You don't have to go and check the ratings on this film ("Handcart") to see if it is suitable for your children. Take everybody in the family. What a nice thing to be able to do."
Successful Latter-day Saint moviemaker Richard Dutcher took questions from fans and aspiring artists in the UVSC Computer Science Building last Thursday. Dutcher spoke about the challenges he has faced making movies geared toward an LDS audience and encouraged students not to be afraid to express themselves honestly.
"Don't worry what other people say about what you do, as long as your work is honest," said Dutcher. "As long as I feel that the Lord accepts me, everyone else can go to hell."
Dutcher's appearance was presented by the Mormon Cultural Studies course. The course is designed to increase awareness and encourage an open dialogue on the representation of Mormons in the media.
Several students asked questions about how they could start making their own movies. Dutcher stressed the need for practical experience. "The best way to start making movies is to start making movies. If you want to direct movies don't schlep cable, because people will only see you as a cable schlepper. If you want to direct, then go out and direct."
Movies are more than just "a way to digest your popcorn" for the "God's Army" director. For him a good movie stays with you and "burrows into your soul." He compared sitting in a theater to sitting in church. He hopes he is not alone in his desire to share a unique LDS perspective with the world at large. "We are created to create...I believe we have been given a challenge by President Kimball (former LDS prophet) and even the Lord to share our talents with the world."
But getting the general public to accept 'Mormon' cinema is not an easy task. When asked if he would ever consider doing something along the lines of "My Big Fat Mormon Wedding" he said it would be tough because, "people don't hate Greeks like they hate Mormons."
Getting that wider audience is critical if his dreams of 'Mormon' cinema are to continue. To date only "God's Army" and "The Singles Ward" have made money for their investors. Expanding the audience beyond Mormons is essential to the genre's survival.
Lack of funding has stymied work on his current production "The Prophet," a biographical film looking at the life of Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He hopes that "The Prophet" will be made soon, because he sees the film as a chance to educate both Mormons and non-Mormons about a misunderstood figure.
When asked about movie editing by companies like Clean Flicks, in order to make more family friendly films, Dutcher had this to say, "I don't like it, but I recognize their right to do it." Then he gave an example that you could buy the "Mona Lisa" and then by rights destroy it because it's yours, but that doesn't make it right.
Dutcher finished his remarks with a call for more LDS artists to put out honest work, flaws and all. "Don't be concerned with the looks your Relief Society President is going to give you, you should be working for yourself. In the end it only matters what you think of yourself and what the Lord thinks of you."
It started with one.
In March 2000, Richard Dutcher's "God's Army" stormed Utah theater box offices, earning $88,584 in just three days. The film, which cost $300,000 to make, went on to gross a total of $2.6 million before going to video.
This fall, six LDS-themed films are planned for theatrical release, and at least two more are scheduled for early next year.
"The power of the niche market is very much at the forefront," said Mary Jane Jones, of Excel Entertainment. "So far, we've done a good job of showing that there is a market for these niche films . . . films that speak to a specific audience."
Excel's niche is movies, videos, audio CDs and other materials that are LDS-oriented -- something the entertainment industry has noticed.
"I think people take us seriously within the industry as a whole," said Jones. "The numbers speak for themselves."
According ACNielsen EDI Inc. -- a company that compiles box-office statistics -- Excel ranked eighth in the nation for limited-release film distribution in 2002. Excel released "God's Army," "Brigham City," "The Other Side of Heaven" in fairly quick succession in 2000 and 2001, and "Charly" in 2002.
Other films, including "Out of Step," "The Singles Ward" and "Handcart" were released in 2002, followed by "The R.M." in January of this year.
Together, all those movies earned a total of $11 million, according to Jeff Simpson, president and CEO of Excel. He added that $9 million "has gone through (Excel's) doors."
Though none of the later films has quite matched the millions earned by "God's Army" and "The Other Side of Heaven," there is no question that the market for Mormon movies is booming.
A quick glance at www.ldsfilm.com, which follows movies made by and about LDS Church members, reveals more than 30 announced or rumored Mormon films. And the filmmakers themselves anticipate that 2003 will be a defining year for LDS cinema.
"This is the year that is really going to make the difference," said Ryan Little, director of "Saints and Soldiers," a World War II drama scheduled to open in Utah theaters in early 2004. (He also directed "Out of Step" and was director of photography on "The Singles Ward," "The R.M." and the upcoming "The Home Teachers.")
"This is the year that's going to say, 'This genre has legs or this genre needs to go away,' " Little said.
He added a cautionary note, however. "I think that it's kind of neat that people are doing (LDS-oriented films). I think the danger is when everyone kind of gets excited and jumps on the wave and tries to create pictures. What happens is, you get a broad selection of quality level. . . . And, if LDS films do bad, or if a bunch of films come out consecutively that are poor quality or a bad story or a bad script or whatever, I wonder if the intended audience will say 'You know what, I think I've just had enough of that.'"
"I think there are potentially eight or nine Mormon films coming out between now and January," said Kurt Hale, director of "The Singles Ward," "The R.M." and "The Home Teachers," which opens Jan. 9. "So, I think this year is going to be a very interesting year, because not all of them will be successful -- and mine may be one of those."
Hale added, "I have a feeling there's going to be some Mormon independents that will be squeezed out pretty quick this year."
Simpson -- a former executive at Disney Studios -- said he has been approached by most of the LDS filmmakers releasing films this fall. "I think, not just in Mormon movies, but in the whole movie business in general, you'll see some good performers and some bad performers. . . . With eight films, not everyone will perform as well as the others."
And what's the quality level of the films he has seen so far? "I have seen some of them and parts of others. . . . I think we'll see a maturing and a thinning all at the same time."
For Simpson, that "maturing and thinning" is exciting. "It ultimately comes down to if they're good, well-told and well-crafted," he said. "That's the evolution that's exciting to watch."
Meanwhile, the man who started it all is getting ready to make his third film. Richard Dutcher, who directed and starred in "God's Army" and "Brigham City," announced with Simpson in April 2001 that he would film a biography of Joseph Smith, titled "The Prophet." But financing fell apart.
Still, Dutcher is optimistic and says he is actively trying to pull together a budget for that film.
"Hopefully I'll be shooting that this coming spring, and we'll be set," he said. "Some people have said ('The Prophet') is on the back burner, but that's not true, it's on the front burner. I have two front burners on my stove, so I can keep it on the front burner. And then, I'm also working on a sequel to 'God's Army' that I hope to shoot within four to five months."
Dutcher has strong feelings about the genre he started and is also optimistic about the future of LDS films. "It's an exciting little genre, it really is," he said. "And I think people really don't understand how healthy it is. People feel too much anxiety about the poor films that come along."
According to Dutcher, even bad films can be good for the Mormon-movie genre.
"I think even if some film that's so poorly made that it's offensive to all of us comes out, I don't think even that is going to affect the market because there's just a pretty constant niche (audience) out there that will go see these films. And, I think that if a bad one comes along, they'll just forget about it, and it will make them want a good one even more."
When a niche film does poorly at a theater, however, it makes it more difficult for the next film to get in, Dutcher added. "And that could be one thing that could be a challenge for us is, if a few films go out and do poorly -- whether because they're poor films or because they're poorly marketed or whatever. Then that causes us to have to negotiate a little harder with the theatre chains in order to get the films in there.
"And the reason why the doors were open after 'God's Army' was because it did extremely well. And so, the theatre chains are in the business of making money, so they wanted anything else that could bring in that kind of an audience, and so they were open to whatever came along and now they're getting a little more discriminating."
However, Dutcher also feels that the market for LDS films can only improve.
"I have absolutely no anxieties about the economic stability of this genre. Because there is enough of an audience there, if you make your films for the right price, if you don't overspend, then you're going to do well in that market. And, I think if it's an honest story, if it's very straight-forward, very honestly and sincerely told, then it will attract other people.
"We'll just try to ignore the really bad movies and really celebrate the great ones, and 10 years from now maybe we'll have our own big studio, cranking out our own product with a lot of experienced filmmakers. . . .
"We have this incredible potential to provide world cinema something that they don't already have -- which is spiritual cinema."
SCHEDULED FOR FALL RELEASE
- "Suddenly Unexpected" (special screenings in Houston theaters)
- "The Work and the Story," Aug. 29 (limited digital-video screenings)
- "The Book of Mormon Movie, Vol. 1: The Journey," Sept. 12
- "Day of Defense," Oct. 10
- "Best Two Years," Oct. 10
- "Pride and Prejudice," fall 2003
SCHEDULED FOR WINTER 2004:
- "The Home Teachers," Jan. 9
- "Saints and Soldiers," early 2004
- "The Legend of Johnny Lingo," Aug. 29
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.
Production costs vary. Rogers spent $2 million on "The Book of Mormon Movie," "The Other Side of Heaven" cost $7 million to produce, and Ryan Little made "Saints and Soldiers" with $700,000. A reasonable budget for an LDS film is about $400,000, said Thomas Baggely, co-webmaster of ldsfilm.com.
Some production costs could have been a lot more if it weren't for the support of people who believe in the projects.
Little received free authentic military uniforms and vehicles for his World War 2 film from a war veteran who had helped him with a war movie he had directed while attending BYU. The only exchange was that the man and his buddies could be in the film.
The actors in "Saints and Soldiers" were out of Little's budget range because most of them had been in Hollywood movies, sitcoms or LDS movies. Corbin Allred starred in "Teen Angel" on ABC and Kirby Heybourne starred in "The RM" and has also been in "The Singles Ward" and other up-coming LDS films. The LDS cast members wanted to do the project because it had the potential to reach further than just the LDS culture. They were willing to be paid at a discounted rate because they were excited about the project, Little said.
The set designer for "The Book of Mormon Movie" is a member of the church who has created sets for major Hollywood movies such as "Titanic" and "Independence Day." When he came to Rogers and wanted to help, Rogers knew he could never afford him, but the designer made his services affordable because he believed in the project, Rogers said.
Once production is done, the true test comes as LDS films enter theaters. Most of them have opened in Utah theaters and later released in the "jell-o belt" -- Utah, Idaho, California, Nevada and surrounding states, where there are large clusters of members.
Box office sales vary. "Charly" only made $800,000 gross in 32 weeks, but "The Other Side of Heaven" made about $4 million.
The hard thing is that revenue gets distributed to so many places that even when companies do well in the box office, they don't profit from it, Baggeley said.
"The Other Side of Heaven" is one of those cases. It was a well-made movie, but because it was labeled as an LDS film, the mass audience didn't receive it even though it was nationally distributed, Baggeley said.
Only two or three LDS films have actually been profitable, which means that the production companies have actually made money from them after other expenses are taken out. "God's Army," the first in the LDS film genre, made about $2 million gross. "The Singles Ward" made about $1.25 million gross and "The RM" is predicted to make a little more than that before its theater run is over.
Baggeley said that the main differences between those that are profitable and those that are not are their budget, distribution and promotion.
Those like "The Singles Ward" and "The RM" who target the LDS audience seem to do much better than those that try to make movies for both members and non-members, Baggely said.
With not much profit in the industry, a lot has changed.
"People are realizing that there's really kind of a limit to how much you can spend on a film for LDS cinema," Baggeley, co-webmaster said. "I think for awhile there was optimism that the sky was the limit, but people have come down to earth a bit about it."
Thomas C. Baggaley writes:
If you've ever been interviewed for a newspaper article, you realize that people are misquoted in the paper all the time. It really teaches you to take the news with a grain of salt. On a rare occasion, it's so bad, it seems like the writer of the article is just making stuff up and attributing it to you, when you really didn't say anything of the kind. And usually you can just grin and bear it. After all, members of the press are people too. They're doing their best, and in most cases, it's not like they do it on purpose. Usually they get the general idea right and no harm is done (although I highly recommend a tape recorder as standard issue to any reporter for any interview!)
It is appropriate, on occasion, to issue a clarification when such errors occur.
Case in point: I was recently interviewed by a Daily Universe reporter about LDS Cinema. The conversation was quite a lengthy one and when the article came out, I was quoted extensive in the article. The problem: Basically every quote attributed to me in the article was incorrect.
No big deal. Except the way I was quoted in a couple of places might be construed as damaging to LDS Cinema and to the efforts of LDS filmmakers to attract investors for their films.
So I've decided to clarify a couple of these quotes. The rest I'll just leave - although they are equally inaccurate.
"A reasonable budget for an LDS film is about $400,000," said Thomas Baggely, co-webmaster of ldsfilm.com.
Besides having my name misspelled everywhere in the article, this is a
highly simplified statement from what I actually said. It also,
unfortunately, is placed right after the writer lists a bunch of
much-higher budgets, including for "The Book of Mormon Movie" and
"Saints and Soldiers". Since "The Book of Mormon Movie" is just
starting its theatrical run and "Saints and Soldiers" hasn't even been
released to the theaters yet and is currently being shown at several
film festivals, this statement might be construed as saying that the
filmmakers of these films have been unreasonable in their budgets.
Obviously, whether their budgets were reasonable or not remains to be
seen - and the proof will be found in their performance in the theaters,
in video/DVD sales and in potential television/cable/satellite
"Those like 'The Singles Ward' and 'The RM' who target the LDS audience seem to do much better than those that try to make movies for both members and non-members"
This is another quote that I did not say and that could be misconstrued
in a way that is damaging to LDS filmmakers. I certainly do not think
that it is more financially sound to make movies that are intended only
for an LDS audience with no crossover. What I actually said is
something along the lines that "The Singles Ward" and "The R.M."
specifically targeted the LDS audience and didn't try as hard as other
films to capture a crossover audience. Recognizing that this is a
limited audience, Halestorm kept their budgets smaller and were able to
be profitable. Other films overspent compared to the audience they were
actually able to bring into the theaters, in part because they have been
unable to attract the crossover audience they were pursuing and in part
because basically no one knew how much it was reasonable to expect these
films to gross in the theaters, and so they were not profitable.
"The hard thing is that revenue gets distributed to so many places that even when companies do well in the box office, they don't profit from it."
I did say something about how box office totals are divided between the theater, distributor and production company, but I didn't say this - not even close.
"'The Other Side of Heaven' is one of those cases. It was a well-made movie, but because it was labeled as an LDS film, the mass audience didn't receive it even though it was nationally distributed."
I never talked about the "The Other Side of Heaven" this way. In fact,
I said that "The Other Side of Heaven" and perhaps "God's Army" are the
only LDS Cinema films that seem to have succeeded in attracting any
crossover audience, although "The Other Side of Heaven" didn't attract
enough of one to make a profit.
Mormon merchandise runs from the practical to the unbelievable. Games are some of the more popular paraphernilia for sale at the BYU Bookstore.Book of Mormon figurines, "Follow the Prophet" trading cards, and feature films based on the lives of missionaries can all be found at your local toy store, grocery store or movie theater, and they are raising concern among some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"I have a problem with selling church items," said Jessica Peterson, a BYU Bookstore employee. "The church has asked people not to do it. Yet, we still carry it."
Some individuals call this trend the commercialization of the Church of Jesus Christ. They feel that more and more individuals are finding ways to use their faith not only for spiritual security, but for financial security as well.
"I just think that they're focusing on richer people like if you have money you can get things oriented with the church," Peterson said. "Yet, there are people who don't have that kind of money to spend."
Deseret Management, the parent company of Deseret Book, had revenues of more than over $800 million for the year 2001. This included sales of such LDS themed merchandise as books, hobby materials, music, and movies.
Katrina Sine, 24, and producer of three independent films, from Salt Lake City, said she believes that the recent growth of the Mormon movie industry carries this same air of church commercialization.
"I think that there are Mormon culture movie genres that are used strictly to exploit a certain percentage of the Mormon culture, by bringing a subject that relates to them in some way, and using it to exploit their money for strictly financial gain," Sine said. "It has nothing to do with any type of quality in my opinion."
She emphasized that the Richard Dutcher film "God's Army", released in August of 2000, was the highest grossing independent film of any independent film released during that year.
Creators of such LDS-based products sometimes like to focus on how their works represent a missionary effort, designed to inspire intrigue about the church in the minds of individuals who are not of the LDS faith. Yet not all people believe this is an effective method.
"It has no appeal to anyone that's not a member of the church," said Camilla Zimmerman, an accounting major, from Port Neches, Texas. "There is no appeal whatsoever."
Some people, however, find nothing wrong in using the church as a basis for products and films.
"That's all anyone's doing," said John Perkins, a pre-communications major, from Dayton, Ohio. "They're making money off of any aspect of life. I don't see it as a negative thing."
Perkins said he thinks that the filmmakers are only producing movies that appeal to those of the LDS faith.
"It's identifying with culture," Perkins said. "That's a big thing for Mormons. So, to see feature films of their lives is a big deal."
Sine agrees that members of the LDS faith are looking for films that represent their interests and belief systems.
"There's a specific leg of the Mormon culture that are sick of watching shows, movies and music that are geared toward things we don't believe in," Sine said. "They are hungry for something about us, something that relates to our morals and value systems."
Sine also said she thinks there is a place for films featuring LDS culture, if done with sincerity and good intent.
"When something is sincere, when a film or a broadcast or a newscast is sincere and comes from the heart for the purpose of educating people about our religion or an aspect of life they are unfamiliar with, that can only bring positive effects," she said.
Picture this: In the not-too-distant future, you take a date to see the latest "Mormon" comedy movie.
The lights go down, the screen flickers to life, and the husky voice of the announcer works its mojo in an effort to encourage you to drop $8 on the producers' next effort.
"Every story has a beginning," he says in the most intriguing tone he can muster. "Every spiritual journey has a moment of awakening. For one young man, that journey is about to begin."
For the next few minutes, you fight a moral battle between your curiosity and your desire to retch as you are subjected to a preview for Mormon Pop Culture's next offering -- "The Sunbeam."
Sound farfetched? Maybe, but given the recent tidal wave that is Mormon Pop Culture, don't write it off.
Although the efforts of these people to create "good, clean humor" have been well received in the Happy Valley, maybe viewers should be more critical. Everyone wants clean entertainment, but does "clean" have to mean predictable, bland and not funny?
But this goes far beyond movies. Other individuals have become less concerned with following the prophet than following the profit, and have joined the market with board games, greeting cards, jewelry and even action figures.
I was once sent an Alma the Younger action figure. While I admire the man and everything he stands for (that's post-conversion, mind you), I fail to see how his example translates into an action figure. Although the idea of collecting all the prophet action figures and playing Royal Nephite Rumble to decide who was best is intriguing, it somehow seems inappropriate.
I admit, in some ways I admire the efforts of these people to provide an inoffensive alternative for people of greater sensibility. But as the "Mormon" movies, games and action figures continue to pile up, I find myself asking, "Where do you draw the line between providing clean entertainment and capitalizing on the gospel?"
That's a question that everyone will have a different answer for, but everyone should ask it of themselves. In my mind, the line has been crossed.
Of course, there would be no supply for this market if there were no demand. Many members of the church seem to feel required to support the Mormon Pop Culture movement as they try to find shelter from the world. But I've yet to hear a prophet tell me buying a gold-plated CTR ring will aid in my salvation, and I doubt I ever will. The fact is, if it doesn't appeal to you, don't feel compelled to see it or buy it or support it.
Although I'll be one of the first to poke fun at the foibles of Mormon culture, there are still some things that are too important to be made fun of or commercialized. Take the religion, but leave the greed at the door.
The soon to be released "Saints and Soldiers" is just one of several new movies in what has become a burgeoning industry in the Intermountain West.
In less than four years, films produced by, directed by, written by and starring Latter-day Saints have exploded onto the scene.
The phenomenon goes on, starting with a film that, even before its release, has achieved a remarkable popularity, reaching beyond Utah and the Mormon culture.
Carole Mikita has this special report.
Five Allied soldiers are trying to survive behind enemy lines during World War II's Battle of the Bulge.
"Saints and Soldiers" has shown in 12 film festivals around the country this year and won the jury prize or audience choice award at all 12!
Movie Clip/"Saints & Soldiers": "This is Rudolph Gertz from Berlin. When I was on my mission in Germany, I taught his family."
Adam Abel/ Producer, "Saints & Soldiers": "It has only shown at one festival here in what would be termed as The Jello Belt. The rest of it is on the west coast and east coast, and then in the midwest as well. So, there's been a large reception to it."
Ryan Little/ Director, "Saints & Soldiers": "Knowing that we got accepted to all these film festivals, we knew that people could relate to this film regardless of their religious background, which was great for us."
Movie Clip/ "Pride & Prejudice": "Okay, I'm looking for a volume of writing by Kierkegard. I K-I-E- ... right. The father of existentialism. You're in the landscape gardening."
Four stars from Box Office Magazine, calling "Pride & Prejudice" "spectacularly entertaining." The title may be Jane Austen but the setting is modern-day Latter-day Saint dormitory.
Coming soon to a theatre near you, "The Best Two Years", based on the real-life experiences of Mormon missionaries in Holland.
Movie Clip/"The Best Two Years": "I almost placed my first Book of Mormon!" "You're kidding me." "No!" "That's great! Were you scared?" "Yeah, a little, but he was an American and we was both speaking English." "Really?" "Yeah." "That's impressive."
And from the team who brought you "Singles Ward" and "The R.M." comes a third... "The Home Teachers."
Kurt Hale/ Director & Writer, "The Home Teachers": "Luckily we have a great community to draw on, great artisans and talent. And, you know, Utah's just a great place to be right now for small, independent cinema."
Much of the success of a film, whether comedy or a little more serious, is the marketing. So what are audiences looking for?
Success for these films, say the producers, depends less on religion than bang for the buck. Afterall, audiences pay the same for films made in Hollywood as they do for those made here.
Jeff Simpson/ President, Excel Entertainment: "It's how entertaining are they? Is this going to be an entertaining film? Is the audience going to like it? I think the days of just showing up are over."
And investors are seeing returns or the phenomenon wouldn't continue. This film surprised everyone, this one had big Hollywood names behind it, and this one still has hopes to succeed.
And there will be more from the man credited with starting it all, Richard Dutcher. He begins shooting "God's Army 2" in January and "The Prophet" immediately after.
Richard Dutcher/ Director & Writer, "God's Army 2" & "The Prophet": "F. Murray Abraham is on board,pending schedule and everything else, of course, as Governor Thomas Ford. And Val Kilmer is on board, pending again (edit) to play the part of Joseph Smith."
Also announced this fall, a movie based on the best-selling series "The Work and the Glory."
Jeff Simpson/ President, Excel Entertainment: "We're going through an evolutionary phase, where stuff's dropping by the wayside. If it's not that good and the cream's rising to the top, and I think that's what you'll see."
"The Home Teachers", "Pride and Prejudice" and "Best Two Years" and "Saints and Soldiers" all open in either January or February followed by others later in the year.