Sunstone Journal – Saturday

By some freakish law of nature, it is inevitable that the two sessions you are most interested in will end up in the same time slot. I’m a big fan of Blake Ostler’s theology and so I really wanted to hear what he had to say in response to some rebuttals from some good people, but I just couldn’t miss a session which was going to offer a panel that included Richard Dutcher and a Halestorm representative sitting together ““ especially considering that Dutcher called the rest of Mollywood a bunch of sh*t on Thursday.

Unfortunately, the Halestorm representative that was supposed to come never did. They must’ve had an idea of what Dutcher was going to say. He spoke briefly, but told a little parable that was funny enough that I want to try to recreate it as close as possible, though this certainly isn’t word for word. Roughly, he said, “There was this girl who no one was paying any attention to. But I started flirting with her and saw her potential and I saw how beautiful and intelligent she could become. She could be perfect. I fell in love with her. But then she started dating other men. She started fornicating with pimps and morons. I told them how fragile she was, but they wouldn’t listen. Now she’s fading back into obscurity. She’s dying. The end.”

A number of people in the audience took great exception to the notion that LDS cinema was dead, including John Dehlin, who argued that the atmosphere of disbelief in the possibility of good LDS cinema was actually creating a perfect storm, in a sense, for a great Mormon film to break out. Dutcher applauded everyone’s optimism, but essentially said, “Let’s see it.” I actually I agree with Dutcher. The problem is not in the ability to create a good LDS film ““ there are no doubt many talented LDS artists out there. The problem right now, and I think some people were missing this point, is getting it funded, distributed, and seen. Because of the current atmosphere, investors no longer want to invest in Mormon cinema, theaters no longer want to show them, and the audience no longer wants to see them.

Dean Hale, director of Vinyard Distribution (formerly of Excel), made this point very well. He pointed to two things that are essential to the success of LDS cinema: that it is of value to Mormons and that it entertains. Sounds simple enough, but he went through a number of LDS films that failed or succeeded, explaining why they would or wouldn’t work just by their very concept. I think he’s right on, let’s just hope future filmmakers listen to him.

Hale also pointed out an interesting statistic. Including Utah ticket sales only, the highest grossing LDS film in Utah alone was The Other Side of Heaven, which made 1.7 million over 23 weeks. Pirates of the Caribbean 2, by contrast, has made 3.5 million in Utah in just 3 weeks. Clearly, Mormons aren’t as interested in LDS film as we often assume they will be.

Kevin Foxe, who was a producer of The Blair Witch Project, also had some interesting things to say. He’s a convert ““ and I don’t think he said when, but I got the impression it was fairly recent ““ and said that he now has a new outlook with film. God, he says, is now part of his audience, as well as Mormons. And he spoke of wanting to make films that will be of real spiritual value. I hope he succeeds. He’s now working on an “experimental” documentary of the life of Joseph Smith.

Finally, just for the record, Dutcher didn’t disdain all LDS films that aren’t his: he gave positive words to New York Doll and The Work and the Glory: American Zion.

I next attended a session about Mormon urban legends with Robert Rees. He told a lot of stories that were getting passed around the internet (although I’ve never heard any of them) about events associated with Mormons being saved in the midst of terrorist attacks and war. According to one legend, the First Presidency sent out a letter to all the stake presidents that no members “in good standing” died in September 11. Also, there was supposedly a Zone Conference to take place in the World Trade Center on 9/11 that got canceled before. It is, of course, all false.

Another similar story told how the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was supposed to have been traveling in London’s subway the day of the mass transit attacks, but President Hinckley canceled the tour a month beforehand. Apparently, Hinckley did cancel a MoTab tour to the British Isles a month before, but the choir wouldn’t have arrived until a week after the attacks ““ and they wouldn’t have been traveling by subway. Another lengthy story dealt with a division of troops in Iraq that were from Utah, that were supposedly accomplishing a list of great feats, none of which were verified to be true.

Rees went on to point out the danger of such legends, as well as similarly fabricated or misrepresented faith promoting rumors, largely because the suggestion of favoritism by God undermines those who have not been so lucky. If a tornado hits your neighbors house and not your own, how does it make your neighbor feel when you declare that the Lord averted the tornado to spare your house?

I largely agree with Rees, that we ought to be particularly careful when telling stories of diving intervention, that we ought to think critically about situations and that we ought to be considerate of others. But in spite of all of this, I think the Lord does, on occasion, intervene in our lives, and I think the Lord does ““ as the scriptures repeatedly tell us ““ bless those who keep his commandments. And I think it would be wrong not to recognize that when it actually does happen.

Next, I was headed on to a session on Joseph Smith as a poet, but I went out to my car for a second, and accidentally locked my keys in there. The last time this happened, it only cost $20 for someone to unlock the door, and as I didn’t really have any wire or anything to try it myself, I figured I’d just call someone up again. They took forever and then they charged $50 for it. That’s just ridiculous. Maybe I haven’t been keeping the commandments or something. Anyway, I just barely made it back in time for the final session of the day ““ Peculiarities, a premier screening of a new film written by Eric Samuelsen.

I am afraid, however, that I don’t feel comfortable expressing an opinion on it yet. The sound was really bad. I think it was a combination of things. The film was a rough cut and sound issues hadn’t been fully worked out. But also, we weren’t in a theater and the sound equipment wasn’t that great. And I was near the back. So I don’t even feel like I can rightly say that I’ve even seen the film, but I’ll give a few impressions.

We found out later, but I had guessed throughout, that the actors were largely the same ones who did the original play. A lot of the performances seemed like they would have been really good on a stage, but felt like they were a bit much for the intimacy of the screen. The visual quality didn’t have much to say for it either. Clearly shot on video instead of film, the movie looked like what you might say was a practice shooting just to get the blocking down.

Peculiarities, which consists of six different storylines all dealing with Mormons and sexuality, has some really interesting stuff going on, and I’m interested in seeing it again when I can hear all the lines clearly. But I can say with some assurance that this thing isn’t going anywhere. It already fails Dean Hale’s two criteria for a successful LDS film. It’s fairly interesting and occasionally humorous, but it’s not particularly entertaining. And it’s far too edgy for the LDS audience to respond to it at all. At the same time, it’s too Mormon-centric to really be appealing to non-LDS audiences. They said they’re going to submit it to Sundance, but I really don’t think it’s even technically competent enough to get in. It’s kind of unfortunate, because I do think Samuelsen has some interesting ideas being explored here, but I predict that if it ever does get into any theaters, we have a new lowest box office gross record holder here. And that’s pretty low.

Well, that’s that for Sunstone this year. It was a lot of fun. But I’m kind of glad it’s over ““ maybe now my roommate will stop asking me if I’m leaving the church.

6 thoughts on “Sunstone Journal – Saturday”

  1. Weirdly, Eric, I had exactly the same day – I went to these sessions, locked my keys in my car after Rees’s, and had to call Triple A. In fact, I think I approached your locksmith – I gave him my name and he said, “Nope, I’m here for someone else,” which was confusing – until now.

    On Mormon film, I agree with Dutcher. I think the only way a Mormon film succeeds now – even to say, God’s Army level – is if it has crossover appeal enough to get backed by a non-Utah based company and attract audiences for non-Mormon reasons.

    As to Peculiarities – I agree. I think there are a lot of interesting ideas knocking around in it, but it also seems to me that it’s almost unconsciously Mormon-centric; a couple of the situations depicted – the ones involving BYU students – require a Mormon, or even a BYU, worldview to make sense, as was made clear when multiple audience members confessed not following the plot. Additionally, all of the stories make Mormon references that a non-Mormon audience wouldn’t grasp. Further, I think you’re right about it not appealing to mainstream Mormons, even setting the profanity aside. Too bad.

  2. I actually saw the play version of Peculiarities– which was a rather different beast from what the film is, in that it only had four plots instead of six (the NCMO plot, the Las Vegas plot, the “emotional affair” plot, and the single room mates plot). I enjoyed the play very much, although there was certainly some discomfort (intentional I’m sure) at some of the material (even though I don’t remember strong profanity– I wonder if that was added into the film). It was certainly thought provoking and I came out glad that I had seen it. However, I do not believe it is Eric’s strongest piece and was kind of at a loss why he chose that play over something, say, like Gadianton or Family. It is one of the least mass appeal of his works (not that Eric ever really makes mass appeal one of his chief goals). Although I haven’t seen the film (I surely hope to, although I don’t know where) and thus can’t judge its technical quality, yet the previews I saw on the company’s website were dodgy. Poor sound quality, moderate acting– from what I could tell, I don’t think they served Eric’s material very well.
    Again, I think this is unfortunate. Eric’s been a friend and his plays are really what inspired me to go into LDS playwriting. He’s one of the best in the genre. I really want his work to succeed, but I think the production company behind the work; the choice of the piece (especially in regards to subject matter); and the Mormon-centric nature of the piece, while repelling the mainstream Mormon audience, will all be major down falls for the film. Here’s hoping that Eric will get another chance with a work that will be a stronger contender for the LDS audience and a more competent production company that will give the piece more quality. Eric’s work deserves at least that much. If that doesn’t happen, at least we know he will continue churning out quality, powerful LDS theater.

  3. Mahonri – the profanity is in ‘Kiss,’ which apparently was an brief one act play that Eric incorporated into the film production.

    I agree that Gadianton, particularly, would have been a stronger choice to film. Additionally, it’s unfortunate that the producers were unable to leverage better production values. Eric’s among the best we’ve got, and I do wish that the first filming of his work was more successful.

  4. I have met Richard Dutcher breifly, I listened ot him as he talked with my Aunt, (she was in Brigham City). I shook his hand and thought, I like this man, I admire him for sticking out of the crowd.

    I mean Richards films have quality acting, they are dramatic, and they tell a compelling story.

    When God’s Army came out my father thought the very name was blasphomy… I wondered what others form his gernation thought. I loved the film. It was the first major film of its kind.

    Eric, I have said it before to my cousin who works for Fox and I’ll say it here. Until the entertainment industry (especially the LDS entertainment industry) stops using a production mentality and starts using a marketing mentality. they will always have big disasters (Water World for example).

    I agree with Dean Hale when he says “that it is of value to Mormons and that it entertains.” I think what he means by “value” is the marketing mentality I am suggesting. You have to understadn your customer, the actual person buying the ticket or the DVD. What does the LDS Community want to see?

    Richard Dutchers films, especially Brigham City were too dramatic and were perhaps not what the main stream LDS market wanted. Plus LDS people might not like the idea of non-LDS people thinking that a Mormon can be a killer.

    My point is that every product has a life cycle, maybe Richard’s film Brigham City wa too ealry in that life cycle and perhaps Hale Storms Movies hit the life cylce at it peak.

    Am I suggesting that LDS Film is dead, no in fact I think the peak I mentioned was just he begining of another major paradime shift for the LDS movie watcher.

    Perhaps the LDS peopel are sick of slap stick humor and are ready for the Drama… I really enjoy the Work and the Glory films, I think these types are really what the LDS people want at the moment.

    But the only way to tell is if someone really asks them. Someoen needs to take valid statistical polls of what LDS movie watcher wants.

  5. The problem is that often what people say they want and what they show they want are quite different. That’s why often films that don’t meet what marketers expect turn out to be so positive. And why so many market driven films don’t do so well.

  6. I wish that I had been here for the symposium. I was in CA for 8 weeks, and didn’t even know about it. I would have loved to hear Richard Dutcher personally.

    Someone was mentioning this on AML, but I’ll mention it here. I think that if someone were to create a really good Mormon centric film and also had a great marketing team, that there would be a big hit.

    My reason for saying this is Brian Friel. He writes, in his own words, “for the liberation of the Irish people.” His work is very ethnocentric to the Irish. There are a lot of obscure references, but his work gets performed all of the time.

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