Larry H. Miller makes an unlikely movie mogul.
He's too honest, for starters. He admits when he is wrong, as he did to filmmaker Richard Dutcher during a press conference Thursday. By his own admission, he gets emotionally involved in his investments. He chooses the movies he backs not just for their potential financial return, but for content and the quality of the people making them.
Clearly, the guy wouldn't last a week in Hollywood.
But the auto dealer, entrepreneur and Utah Jazz owner could become the Louis B. Mayer of Mormon Cinema -- just when the genre needs him.
Miller said Thursday that for years, people presented him with movie scripts and asked him to invest. "I don't blame them for coming to me with scripts and requests for financing, if they don't blame me for saying 'no,' " Miller said.
Miller avoided the movie business for 20 years, he said, in part because "I don't understand that much about it." Where in most fields a quality product -- a car or a basketball team, for example -- will bring in customers, it doesn't always work that way in movies. Miller said he still can't figure out why "Brigham City," Dutcher's follow-up to "God's Army," received better reviews than "God's Army" but made less money.
In 2000, Miller saw "God's Army," the first of the Mormon Cinema genre, at a critic's screening at his Megaplex 17 at Jordan Commons. "I saw him in the film, then I saw in the credits that he wrote it, produced it and directed it. I thought, well this is a pretty interesting guy," he said. "Then I noticed this guy in a baseball coat, handing out press packets." That's when Miller met Dutcher.
Miller soon hooked up with Dutcher, investing in "Brigham City." On Thursday, Miller announced he will put in "a significant amount" for Dutcher's next two films, "God's Army 2: States of Grace," and Dutcher's dream project, "The Prophet," an epic biography of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith.
This follows close on the heels of Miller's announcement that he will bankroll, to the tune of $7.4 million, an adaptation of the first book in Gerald N. Lund's LDS historical saga, The Work and the Glory.
Miller is not the only NBA owner branching out into movies. Last month Mark Cuban, the internet tycoon who owns the Dallas Mavericks, bought Landmark Theatres, an art-house chain with 55 theaters nationwide. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Cuban holds a 5-percent stake in Lions Gate Films, and he and business partner Todd Wagner also have invested in a production company and in Magnolia Pictures, the indie distributor that this year released the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary "Capturing the Friedmans."
Miller is choosy in the projects he backs. "I go largely by the feel of the whole project," he said. "It's a combination of a belief in what's being done, and a hope that it can be financially successful. In a free-enterprise economy, it's a simple equation: If you aren't successful in financial ventures, you don't earn the right to keep doing them, and I don't care if you're selling cars or owning a basketball team or making films."
Supporting Dutcher and Lund, a personal friend, was comparatively easy. "With Richard and with Gerry, I'm not just betting on the film content -- I'm betting on the person doing it," Miller said.
Miller aids Mormon Cinema in other ways. His Megaplex theaters have booked several titles, and Jordan Commons is the preferred premiere site for LDS filmmakers. ("The Book of Mormon Movie," for one, had its gala premiere there in September.) He made a cameo in "The R.M.," and allowed that movie to shoot several scenes at Jordan Commons (that's the Mayan doubling as "Book of Mormon Burger").
Leigh von der Esch, executive director of the Utah Film Commission, is happy to see Miller in the movie business. "You look at Jordan Commons or the Delta Center, and you see Larry has a vision for sports and entertainment," von der Esch said. "He can carry that into motion pictures."
The timing couldn't be better. Mormon Cinema, I feel, is in danger of being run into the ground by amateurism -- an overload of nickel-and-dime movies where the message, no matter how uplifting, is buried under cheap production values and community-theater acting. Miller's emphasis on strong content, and his ability to put real money behind projects, are just what the genre needs right now.
Web page created 20 October 2003.