Missionary Positioning

Indie Mormon cinema attempts a mainstream conversion

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 such well-known LDS filmmakers as Don Bluth and Neil LaBute). Mormon director Jared Hess' teen comedy, Napoleon Dynamite, recently premiered at Sundance. Now some producers are eyeing the mainstream, and C. Jay Cox's Latter Days, a film about gay Mormons opens Friday in New York, Los Angeles and Irvine, 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 before Dutcher's crossover hit, which grossed more than $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 [Costa Mesa-based Trinity Broadcasting Network's 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 Commandmentsbut 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, which screened this past summer at Captain's Family Theater in Brea, 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 such as "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).

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