[This is the writeup posted on the NPR webiste. Listen to the full report online.]
The Sundance Film Festival opens Thursday in Park City, Utah. But so far, festival organizers have largely ignored an independent film genre thriving right in their backyard -- Mormon cinema. As NPR's Howard Berkes reports, over the past three years, distinctly Mormon films targeting Mormon audiences have played in multiplexes coast to coast.
Dave Hunter, co-founder of Utah-based Halestorm Entertainment, figures that at least 10 percent of the 5 million Latter-day Saints living in the United States would be willing to see Mormon-centered films.
"If that boils down to 200,000 or 300,000 people that will actually pay for that, that will justify our box and us doing it," Hunter says.
Indeed, Halestorm's film The Singles Ward played in more than 160 theaters and reaped close to $1 million in profits, making the comedy a blockbuster by Mormon cinema standards. God's Army, a story about Mormon missionaries and challenges to faith, grossed more than $2.6 million in ticket sales -- nearly 10 times its production costs.
But some critics complain too many of these niche films lack originality and quality production.
"Most of these LDS movies are very safe and familiar," says Salt Lake Tribune film critic Sean Means. "They are all about the culture and sort of jokes about... green jello and... funeral potatoes and too many dishes at the potluck... there's not a lot of discussion about what it really means to be a Mormon."
There are some critically acclaimed exceptions, like the murder mystery Brigham City -- but it didn't do as well at the box office as God's Army and Singles Ward. Another new film in the genre, Saints and Soldiers, has won awards at seven film festivals -- but it was purged of all Mormon references.
"We've had a lot of people who love the movie," says Saints and Soldiers producer Adam Abel. "And unfortunately, I think if they thought it was a Mormon [movie], they may just automatically think it's a bad thing, rather than taking it for what it's worth."
Richard Dutcher (right) stars in Brigham City, a Mormon murder mystery that's won critical acclaim. Dutcher wrote, produced, directed and starred in the film.
Mormon Movie Trailers
- 'Brigham City'
- 'The Home Teachers'
- 'The Best Two Years'
- 'Pride and Prejudice'
Saints Go Grunge 'The Singles Ward' features an updated version of the traditional Mormon hymn "Come, Come Ye Saints." Compare the versions: [Audio files]
- As Heard in 'The Singles Ward'
-As Sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
- 'Brigham City' Web Site
- 'The Singles Ward' Web Site
- 'Saints and Soldiers' Web Site
- 'Pride and Prejudice' Mormon Remake Web Site
- LDS Film Festival Web Site
- LDSFilms.com [sic; actually: LDSFilm.com, but link is to proper website]: Web Site Dedicated to Mormon Cinema Genre
Sundance is no longer Utah's only indie-cinema foothold. In the past few years, the state has played host to an unprecedented surge in feature films made by Mormons, for Mormons, and set within the Mormon world. In the smut-pop age of raunchy teen comedies, a driven cadre of local companies is tapping a market for squeaky-clean entertainment, custom-made for the Mormons' own G-rated culture. In 2003, no fewer than six theatrical features made by Latter-day Saints directors, about LDS characters, had limited releases, mostly in Mormon-heavy Western states, according to LDS Film (ldsfilm.com, which also compiles data on well-known LDS filmmakers like Don Bluth and Neil LaBute). Mormon director Jared Hess's teen comedy, Napoleon Dynamite, premiered at Sundance last week. Now some producers are eyeing the mainstream, and C. Jay Cox's Latter Days, a film about gay Mormons that opens January 30 in New York, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City, is already courting controversy.
Director Richard Dutcher's seriocomic missionary narrative God's Army (2000) is widely recognized as the film that unleashed the current boom, which some have tried to name "Mollywood" (from "Molly Mormon," an archetypal Mormon woman), though it hasn't quite stuck. Still considered a high-water mark in terms of quality and box office, Army cemented its distributor, the Salt Lake City-based Excel Entertainment Group, as LDS cinema's first micro-major. According to Excel head Jeff Simpson, a former Disney executive, Mormon cinema as such did not exist prior to Dutcher's crossover hit, which grossed over $2.6 million. "There were some Mormon characters in Hollywood," says Simpson. "But they were generally treated stereotypically. Like any niche groups -- gay, blacks -- Mormons were treated as caricatures."
The successes of gay and black filmmaking in the 1990s provided a model for Excel, which has pursued grassroots marketing strategies for the four LDS-themed releases it has launched following God's Army's success. Once primarily a distributor of faith-based music, Excel now has a slate that includes Dutcher's small-town thriller Brigham City (2001); Charly (2002), based on a bestselling Mormon novel; and Pride and Prejudice (2003), a comedy that restages Jane Austen's novel in the dating scene of a Brigham Young University-like school. The company is readying the WW II drama Saints and Soldiers for a spring release. In addition to leveraging its relationships with LDS bookstores worldwide, Excel deploys classic indie techniques. "We have what would look like a political boiler-room," Simpson says, "with folks keeping track of 'superfans' and we'll do special things for them. We'll send them autographed copies of this or that, and try to keep them on our side. We try to create a network of fans to help spread the word."
Though theatrical releases are new, a Mormon cinema of sorts has existed for decades within the Church, according to Tom Lefler, associate chair of the BYU media arts department, where many of the current crop of LDS filmmakers were trained. The heyday of the Mormon educational film was the '60s and '70s, after the Church established the LDS Motion Picture Studio at BYU. "The films were doctrinally relevant pieces that were primarily used in church settings," Lefler says, "to teach a moral or a concept embedded in a story." In recent years, Oscar-winning IMAX director (and LDS member) Kieth Merrill has produced large-format religious films for the Church. Lefler reports that Merrill's hour-long 70mm film, The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd (2000), an epic retelling of episodes from the Bible and the Book of Mormon that screens regularly at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City, had a higher production budget than any Mormon-themed commercial release.
Unlike their evangelical Christian counterparts, Mormon distributors avoid marketing within the Church. "In the LDS world," says Simpson, "the Church itself will not -- and we don't think should -- get involved in the commercial aspect of anything. I know that sometimes in the Christian world, with films like [1999 biblical prophesy thriller] The Omega Code, a distributor gets a hold of a local church and has them get the word out to the congregation. Not so in the LDS world. It very much has to be a cultural thing."
A more hands-off approach to depicting doctrine has so far been the norm for Mormon cinema. A major exception is The Book of Mormon Movie, Volume I: The Journey, a low-budget adaptation -- made privately, without official Church endorsement or sponsorship -- that aimed for a version of great religious epics like The Ten Commandments but opened in Utah to lukewarm reviews last fall.
HaleStorm Entertainment has fared better with a hit string of quickie youth comedies. Its first film, The Singles Ward, takes place in a twentysomething congregation; The RM depicts the wacky exploits of a young "returned missionary"; The Home Teachers puts a Tommy Boy buddy-comedy spin on the LDS custom of door-to-door scripture education; and the group is currently finishing Sons of Provo, a mockumentary about a Mormon boyband complete with hyper-pop songs like "Word of Wizzum" and "Diddly Wack Mack Mormon Daddy." Even the Mollywood boom itself has been spoofed: Another LDS company, Do It Now, produced The Work and The Story, a Spinal Tap-esque profile of wannabe Mormon Spielbergs (complete with a Richard Dutcher cameo).
HaleStorm's tiny budgets are raised in part through partnerships with other LDS-based companies, including Mormon dating websites and a company that sells V-chip-style software that removes family-unfriendly content from Hollywood films. "We have one more film that we shoot in June -- Church Ball -- and from there we'll take a year break and figure out how to crack the bigger nut," says HaleStorm producer Dave Hunter, grandson of an LDS president and prophet. "We plan to move up to non-Mormon films -- clean, family-fare comedy stuff that plays to a larger audience."
Simpson says he too is "always looking for a crossover," citing My Big Fat Greek Wedding as an ideal. "Excel sees itself primarily as a company that tries to identify niches, a matchmaker between art and audience. Our biggest expertise is the LDS audience. But we're looking at applying that track record to other demographics." Crossing over is complex for LDS filmmakers, as the culture draws sensitive boundaries between itself and what Mormons call the "gentile" world. Lefler recalls that some thought that the depiction of a Church ritual in God's Army breached propriety. Much of HaleStorm's comedy springs from tweaking LDS cultural norms, thus sharply limiting their humor's audience.
Sweet Home Alabama screenwriter C. Jay Cox's directorial debut, Latter Days, takes on a more potent taboo -- the Church's decidedly anti-gay stance (which also played a part in Angels in America). "Latter Days fits into the Mormon framework the same way that Kevin Smith's Dogma fits into Catholic films," says Cox, who was raised in a five-generations-LDS family in Nevada. In Cox's film, a devout Mormon meets an openly gay man while on mission in Los Angeles; both men experience their own awakenings, sexual and spiritual. Already, Cox reports that small towns in Utah are circulating petitions to ban his film. "There is this part of me that is still a gay, 19-year-old missionary," says Cox, who hopes that "just some of those kinds of kids could see this movie and realize, I'm going to be OK, I'm not going to go to hell -- that there are alternatives to what they are being told."
Rigging a prop for Mormon buddy comedy Home Teachers
(U-WIRE) PROVO, Utah - They're polygamists or religious zealots or even your average Joe, they're naive, gullible and silly -- according to the portrayal of "Mormons" in feature films.
Since the beginning of filmmaking more than a century ago, moviemakers have taken an interest in using LDS characters to enrich their plots, but at the same time, the depictions reflect cultural stereotypes of the times.
BYU graduate Melissa Smith has taken the watchdog role for the ill depiction of Mormonism in the movies. She studied and wrote a master's thesis on the stereotypes representing Latter-day Saints in the past 100 years of filmmaking.
In the earliest films like the silent film, "Trapped by the Mormons," Latter-day Saints were portrayed as evil. In the 1930s and '40s, films such as "Brigham Young, Frontiersman" downplayed differences that featured LDS in a western setting, sometimes focusing on the polygamist lifestyle, she said. Within the last 20 years, modern films, like "Catch Me If You Can" and "Training Day," have portrayed a naive, extreme and idealistic Mormon.
These representations sometimes are quick and less developed, such as a quick joke because the stereotype surrounding the character is easy to flesh out. Other times, they are more in depth, she said.
Gideon Burton, an English professor who specializes in LDS genre films research, said Latter-day Saint characters in feature films serve as a simple stereotype or a short cut in humor. Most producers don't have to take time to develop that character, he said.
"They serve as functions rather than being profound characters, just serving a literary or cinematic function and that has happened with all kinds of minorities over time," he said.
Burton said Mormons aren't alone; other minorities are in a similar position in the media. The LDS however, haven't taken the opportunity to correct the misperceptions of their culture.
"The Jewish population has the anti-defamation league, and so they have been really careful watching for anti-Semitism in the media as they recently did with Mel Gibson's Passion movie," he said. "But when Mormons are depicted in a way that is not factual or accurate, we don't have a Mormon anti-defamation league for that."
Smith, who received a bachelor's degree in Humanities with a history emphasis and a master's degree in American history, said in particularly with the visual culture of today, stereotypes are easy to portray because there is over 100 years of film history behind it.
"Looking at how Mormons or how any group has been portrayed, those stereotypes have developed and changed," Smith said.