Review: American Mormon

Released on DVD one week ago today, American Mormon is a short documentary made by Daryn Tufts (Eldon of The Singles Ward) and Jed Knudson (of The Whole Armor of God). Much in the style of Leno’s Jaywalking spots, Tufts goes around asking random people all about the Mormons ““ what they think of them, what they can and can’t do, what they believe, some basics of church history, and so forth.

Though rarely laugh out loud material, it’s a continually amusing spectacle. There are a lot of responses that you might expect (comments about polygamy), and then some that you wouldn’t (at least Mormons don’t come to your door like those JW’s, thank goodness). They manage to hit some normal people as well as some rather unusual people as well, getting a nice variety of answers. Some people know what they’re talking about, some admit to not knowing basic things, and others make false assertions with some assurance. While we’re generally humored by misconceptions and funny answers, it quickly becomes apparent that some people have simply confused Mormons with the Amish or Jehovah’s Witnesses, and don’t actually think such things of Mormons.

Because responses have been chosen out of 20 hours worth of material, it’s probably not a good sociological reference for Americans’ opinions of Mormons. Particularly notable is the absence of any serious criticisms or misgivings about Mormons. Tufts mentions in the DVD commentary that he was surprised that all the people they ran into were so positive about Mormons, which I’m willing to believe ““ but I think most people figured out that the filmmakers were Mormon and that it wouldn’t have been polite to say anything harshly critical. Regardless of its accuracy in capturing general opinion, it’s still something that I think would be of interest to a people who are so concerned about what others think of them.

It’s only 35 minutes, but we wouldn’t want it any longer. Dragging it out any longer would probably have become tedious, but the near-equivalent of a TV show is just long enough that you can get a good feel for the matter. DVD extras include a commentary track, some outtakes, and an advertisement for a Book of Mormon game.

The biggest problem with American Mormon is the price. I paid 12.99 plus tax for the half hour show, and then they had the gall to tell me I saved seven dollars by shopping at Deseret Book. Who in their right mind would pay 20 bucks for this thing? In fact, I’m curious as to who’s going to pay $13 for it (besides me). I also want to know who’s actually going to be charging $20 for it ““ certainly neither Wal-Mart nor Seagull. Why don’t they just say it’s $100 and then tell us we saved $87? This business of hiking up list prices so that retailers can sell them at extravagant “discounts” seems very silly to me ““ particularly so when all of the retailers are going to be selling it at the discount price.

American Mormon would have been a great addition to a collection of LDS comedy skits or as an extra on another DVD. It’s definitely worth a half hour of your time; it just isn’t worth over thirteen dollars of your money.

7 thoughts on “Review: American Mormon”

  1. Thanks for this timely review, Eric.

    I too wonder about the pricing for this. Indeed, the pricing structure in the Mormon market in general seems a bit off. Perhaps Kent can shed some light on this. 

    Posted by William Morris

  2. The pricing structure in the Mormon market is off because you’re comparing to a market that has a much, much larger target. Metro-Goldywn-Meyer can afford to sell a full-length feature movie for $20 because there are roughly 300 million people willing to buy it. Even when you discount the people who won’t buy it because they don’t like horror, or the target audience is too young or they just don’t watch movies, that still leaves many, many people to buy MGM’s product. More than enough to fill out their profit margins. When you figure that there are about 5 million LDS in the States and only half that apparently self-identify as LDS, then discount the people who aren’t interested in an LDS remake of “Pride and Prejudice” or what have you, and subtract from that the number of people who don’t live in the Mormon Corridor and are thus unlikely to even hear of the product– you find you’re not looking at profit margin but wondering if you’ll even make it out of the red. 

    Posted by harpingheather

  3. Heather,

    I realize small market films have to make a profit, but it think American Mormon  is disproportionately priced even for a Mormon movie. Most full length Mormon movies list at about 19.99. This one isn’t worth its price, and I think attempting to compete with other full-length movies it is going to seriously hurt its sales.

    Posted by Eric Russell

  4. Eric said “Most full length Mormon movies list at about 19.99.” Not true. Many LDS DVDs, at the time of their release, price significantly higher. Case in point: Excel Entertainment released “American Mormon,” and thus set the price. Here are examples of other Excel DVD releases:

    Saints and Soldiers: $29.98
    The Other Side of Heaven: $29.99
    God’s Army: $29.98
    Brigham City: $29.98
    The Work and The Glory: $26.98
    Pride and Prejudice: $24.98

    And here are some examples of LDS DVDs, not from Excel:

    The Best Two Years: $24.95
    The Book of Mormon Movie: $24.95
    The Singles Ward: $24.95
    The R.M.: $24.95

    Plus, you must consider, these movies were first released in theaters. If you wanted to watch most of these movies when they were originally released, as opposed to waiting months for DVD, you would need to pay the movie ticket price (approx. $7). On a date: $14. With kids: Much higher – $21. $28, $35, etc. Babysitter: $10? $20? Snacks, food”¦sky is the limit. For couples and families, and night out at the movies can easily be $30, $40, even $50 if you desire to see the movie when released. And this is to view the movie once, with no ownership. Then, to take the movie home, you pay the DVD price, on TOP of the theatrical. “American Mormon” came straight to DVD, allowing LDS people and families to own the show for $13 and watch it as much as they’d like. Yes, it is a specialty DVD, not a movie, but enjoyment is enjoyment, and if the show appeals and would be enjoyed by a buyer, this DVD is priced in the lower range of what people quite normally pay for DVD entertainment, specialty or otherwise.

    I know there was talk of turning “American Mormon” into a longer, feature documentary that would play theatrically. This would allow more money to be made in the process, and research indicated there would have been enough audience interest to support it (for example, “American Mormon” was the #1 seller at Deseret Book the week it was released). But the filmmakers feeling was essentially this: why make a movie longer, just to make more money? Longer is not necessarily better. They felt the product would have been of higher quality shorter. And by going straight to DVD, they could save their audience much of the price of the film during its lifecycle, and give them a film that ultimately was not only less expensive to enjoy (and enjoy permanently through direct ownership), but also downright more enjoyable.

    And let’s not forget, “American Mormon” is also available for rent. So those who do not wish to pay for it, or own it, can still watch it many times for $4.

    All in all, considering this is a business and the filmmakers must turn a profit if they are to survive, I can tell you the filmmakers put a lot of throught how to deliver the movie to those interested at a reasonable price, with options to save even more.


    Posted by Anonymous

  5. Thanks for your comment, anonymous.

    I appreciate that you took the time to gather some data to back up your point.

    Both you and Heather make good points about content producers and publishers/distributors making a living.

    However, it’s seem to me that one of the major problems of the Mormon market is that it is competing with othe forms of entertainment. Heather mentions the small-ness of the potential Mormon market — and she is absolutely right. But I have the suspicion [meaning I can’t back it up with data] that the Mormon market is even smaller than it should be because Mormons have been turned off by the less than stellar quality of Mormon products (esp. for the price). And when I talk about quality, I’m not slighting specific genres. The problem is that many products don’t live up to the best practices and expectations of their genre. 

    Posted by William Morris

  6. Yes, thank you Anonymous. You make a good point, but I think William makes a better one.

    American Mormon, for example, is certainly going to be cheaper than taking the family to the movies. But I’m not sure that that’s its primary competition. Seems to me it would be up against a new Hollywood-made DVD that can be had for not much more than $13 at Wal-Mart.

    Posted by Eric Russell

  7. Thanks Eric and William,

    Though, back to Eric’s point that the price for “American Mormon” is wrong and will hurt sales. It’s a fair assertion, but also one based on speculation. To get a more accurate answer to this, again I did my homework, so that I could speak in factual terms, as opposed to answering simply with my own speculation.

    “American Mormon” arrived on DVD nearly two weeks ago. It was officially Desrert Book’s #1 bestselling product. It outsold not only every other DVD they carry, but every other item, including new books and muisc from popular authors. In Wal-Mart, it sold heavily. It had no displays – merely sat on shelves with other new release DVDs from Hollywood, and it sold heavily. It is also in Hollywood Video, where it has been renting consistently. I don’t know exact numbers (but I also don’t know exact numbers of Hollywood releases that sell in the LDS regions, and thus can be compared, so I would have no comparison point, anyway). But, I do know this: based on the numbers it has brought in, Excel has not only officially offered the filmmakers a deal to distribute sequels, Excel has also offered to front the production costs. So clearly, when sold against other DVDs, this product has so far sold nicely.  

    Posted by Anonymous

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