An Obituary for Mormon Cinema?

The link below is technically a review in Meridian Magazine for TWATG: A House Divided, but most of the article focuses on the seemingly dire fate of Mormon Cinema.

And, I think we must admit things look dire. Richard Dutcher’s films bombed thus causing him to abandon this love child he created while disowning the Mormon community; works like TWATG and the Other Side of Heaven, while being the most successful (comparitively) LDS films, yet were not able to pay back the investment; Halestorm are focusing on whatever “crossover” they can manage while also abandoning the LDS market; a stream of successive bad movies like The Book of Mormon Movie; investors like Larry Miller abandoning ship (and thus destroying what hopes there were of angel investors); and perhaps the biggest knock of all, the audience has become disinterested in a movement which they once seemed to think had a bit of promise.

However, there is that one bright glimmer in the distance: the prophecy. Spencer W. Kimball’s talk “The Gospel and the Arts.” He specifically mentions LDS Cinema. He mentions it on a grand scale, detailing the most powerful elements of LDS History. Now was this just wishful thinking on his part? Maybe– but I’m inclined to think not. I think not because I still think that this was more than a jaunty pep talk for LDS artists. I still feel the weight of prophecy ache in my bones whenever I read it.

Will its fulfillment happen in our lifetime? Maybe not. Maybe there will be a Renaissance of Mormon Art when we reach 100 million members or 500 million and the Mormon market is much larger and with more experience under its belt. Maybe it will take another 100 or 1000 years before Mormon Art really establishes its place (how much great art was the early Christian Church making not even 200 years within its inception?). Perhaps these are but the birthing pains, but we must wait until the child is fully grown before we can expect anything really powerful or history altering out of this movement. Perhaps these LDS film makers will be seen as pioneers, much like Parley P. Pratt, Eliza R, Snow, C.C. Christensen or Orson F. Whitney– writers and artists who may have not made many big splashes in the way of the artistic world, but who paved the way, laid the foundation for artists with more training, skill and opportunity to evetually take their place.

Or maybe not. Maybe the prophecy will be fulfilled sooner than that. Very soon. Whether sooner or later, if it truly is a prophetic destiny, then no matter how many false obituaries it is given, no matter how deep it is submerged, God’s will rises back above the waters. Perhaps its like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn attending their own funeral, laughing at the proceedings, when they are very much alive and well, just off doing their own thing until it is time for them to return.

22 thoughts on “An Obituary for Mormon Cinema?”

  1. All the weeping and wailing and mourning over Mormon cinema seems silly. What has it been, 5-6 years since the release of God’s Army? And look at all the good things that have happened.

    The Meridian article focuses on money. So how many Mormon movies have made money in the past five or six years? Certainly God’s Army did (I believe it cost something like $300,000 and made over $5 million). The Other Side of Heaven and Napoleon Dynamite were picked up by major studios and made good money. Saints and Soldiers (a low production cost flick), which always seems to be on cable these days, can’t be doing so bad. New York Doll (another low cost film) must have done fairly well too. While giving us a decent movie or two (I like The Best Two Years) and a steaming pile of dim-witted comedies, Halestorm et al. no doubt made some benjamins.

    Still, the Meridian article seems to equate the unprofitability of the Work and Glory movies with the death of Mormon cinema. Silly. I never saw the latter two W&G movies because the first one was so boring. It was a good looking movie–the production value was undeniably high–but so what? It also had unbelievably bland dialog and eerily unconflicted characters. And it was so melodramatic: they did everything but put white hats on the Mormons and black hats on everybody else. It was an achievement of sorts I guess, making a dynamic religious genious like Joseph Smith and his story boring.

    Anyway, I think the real lesson to be learned from the W&G movies is that a certain formula (lavish production and average artistry) is bound to fail in a small market. A much better formula (proven effective by some of the movies listed above): low budget production and better than average artistry. Give me a good script. I don’t care if the movie doesn’t look Hollywood. Not being Hollywood is part of the charm.

  2. I’m with S.P. on this one. The costs associated with making a film are very high, and slowly dropping – but won’t as much as people think they will. A compelling story solves a lot of the problems of low production value.

    What will change cinema in general and, I predict, give birth to the “2nd wave” of LDS Cinema is digital distribution and home video on demand. More people see these films on the small screen than on the big screen, which is a bit of a shame but it’s cost prohibitive.

    Once you pay for the print, you have to book the theater and fight for space against much larger distribution companies. Once you pay for advertising in that market, you’re paying through the nose. It only gets worse outside Utah, where the market size is so huge that it makes it more difficult to target.

  3. Jared is right about distribution. I have only seen the so-called LDS films on video. They hardy ever show up at a theater here in New Mexico. The first “The Work and the Glory” was in Albuquerque for one day only. The better films show up on cable or in video stores. Maybe it is time for these filmmakers to rethink distribution. Doing the film festivals hoping to breakout and selling DVDs might be the solution.

    “Napoleon Dynamite” was the rare film to break into the mainstream because of a film festival. Compare it to say “RM” or “Singles Ward”. Those two films are unlikly to get play much further than an LDS audience. Who sees the “Left Behind” films besides people who plan to be raptured off the planet?

  4. Think about the 70’s with Saturday’s Warrior, Star Child, My Turn on Earth, Debbie the Diary of a Mormon Girl, etc… These were all plays which cashed in on the void in Mormon arts at the time. Yet they proved there were artists out in the community, which, in turn opened the door for Kieth Merril and eventually Dutcher and Mormon Cinema.

    God’s Army, the Singles Ward, RM, Work and Glory, BoM(b) Movie, etc… all filled a void – some too quickly – but I believe they will lead to greater arts yet to come, once the dust settles. Then the wheat will be seperated from the tares.

  5. I have hoped that Dutcher would come out and retract or correct what was printed about him not associating with the Church any longer. But I haven’t seen that happen.

    If so, I’m disappointed. I think he was doing good work and set a good standard for other LDS film-makers.

    Regardless, in my book, he has an important place in the developing history of LDS culture.

  6. Dnithew,
    No matter what happens with Dutcher, he made a mark– he showed it *could* be done, if the right elements were in place. As you said, I think his place in LDS History is set. I still hope, however, that he doesn’t leave the Church, however. Money is always a stupid reason to leave the Church, and I really hope that it doesn’t come down to that.

  7. Hello Everyone,

    Here it goes. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is clear. If you abide the law you get the blessing. Good media comes when people take a stand and create media that takes a stand. This means “All Good” No compromising values. The Church and Gospel are awesome and we need to shout it from the roof tops. How? We need to create media that is virtuous, lovely, and praiseworthy or of good report, these are the things we seek after.

    No Cockroaches in the Taco!

    I sat on the board of the LDS Book Sellers Association for those making movies, and it was quite clear as I sat there that the world needs “All Good”. As members of the Church we need to produce this.

    The members of this Church and the world are searching for something (in media) and do not know where to find it. They are looking for good wholesome media, that builds, strengthens, has power to change lives. The kind of media that leaves you feeling like you want to change to be a better son, father, brother, grandfather, mother, sister, grandmother, etc.

    This can be done by making a “religious movie” or one that warms the hearts of people so that they can be warned. This type of movie needs to have powerful climaxes with ups and downs that draw you in and make you feel like you are living through those people on the “stage” (screen).

    These types of movies have a powerful effect on people to move them to change their lives. We can effect this change in a way that is non offensive and compliant with the For the Strength of the Youth Pamphlet. It still may not speak of anything “Religious” and teach powerful moral values that we as members of this church have!

    When we start making movies that do this, and are in complete harmony with the For The Strength of the Youth Pamphlet. We will then actually be able to watch those movies we produce. Then the Lord will begin to shower down his blessing upon us through media and we will reach the world in a way that has never before been. Remember, we have to abide all of his laws in order to get the blessings. Then and only then, will the prophesies of the prophets (Spencer W. Kimball, Boyd K. Packer, John Taylor, Brigham Young, and others) all be fulfilled.


  8. Thanks for commenting, Craig. A few thoughts in response.

    Your summation of the gospel (If you abide the law you get the blessing) is interesting given the context. Did the Savior say that? Does anyone abide the law? What about repent and be saved through faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ? Your use of the thirteenth article of faith (virtuous, lovely, praiseworthy, of good report) is likewise interesting. I read those words as a broadening injunction (i.e., we seek out the good beyond our own borders). You seem to make those words a justification for passing judgment.

    The thing is good art portrays human frailty. It portrays people as they really are (lost, fallen, in need of salvation). Good art understands the darkness of mortality. Art that ignores frailty and darkness is generally powerless to say much about mortal existence and our hope for salvation. Not only that, but it has a strange otherwordly quality that seems to deny the need for Atonement.

    Also, consider this paradox. Art that seeks converts is rarely compelling. The more didactic and preachy, the less persuasive. In other words, it takes real skill (not just good intentions) to make art that really builds and strengthens.

    Of course, I am not advocating anything very shocking. I just think judging art by what is not there instead of what is there will not get Mormon art very far. It is entirely possible to make squeaky clean garbage. Fulfilling the promises of the arts sermons is not simply a matter of being even more squeakly clean.

  9. We’re now awaiting the second generation of LDS cinema. I personally think that the second generation will be more characterized by films like Napoleon Dynamite and New York Doll. Films with big cross-over appeal that tend to do the Sundance like circuit.

    As everyone was stating for a goodly amount of time, the LDS market isn’t big enough to maintain a large film presence. Once the novelty wore off people started treated LDS films the way they treat other films.

    Now some will still be made targeting LDS audiences. I think Miller doesn’t even expect to make money on his renditions of The Work and the Glory. But that’ll be the exception.

    I think that it can happen. But it won’t happen the way the first generation films happened. I also think it won’t be in the obvious styles. (Neither New York Doll nor Napoleon Dynamite really were typical LDS films – and many debate whether Dynamite even ought be considered an LDS film)

  10. I found Gilgamesh’s comment (#7) particularly interesting, given what it says about the LDS market and the potential for film. I can’t help but point out that a true ‘second wave’ of LDS plays (i.e., those that appear in theaters available to LDS audiences around the world) has failed to materialize after the 1970s, despite the popularity of Saturday’s Warrior, Star Child, My Turn on Earth, Debbie the Diary of a Mormon Girl, etc., AND DESPITE many, many better playwrights and better plays that have been written and produced since.

    So why do we expect a ‘second wave’ of LDS Cinema?

    Don’t get me wrong. I hope we do get that ‘second wave’, and I hope this wave solves the distribution problems and quality problems that the first saw. But why do we think that the market and investors will support a second wave?

  11. S.P. Bailey said, “Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating anything very shocking. I just think judging art by what isn’t there instead of what is there won’t get Mormon art very far. It is entirely possible to make squeaky clean garbage.”

    Amen to that. I had the experience in 2002-03 of working with a set of folks who’d started a newsmag called the Utah Weekly. Its point was to provide A&E news, with reviews of films, plays and restaurants plus some hard news and political commentary, but with the twist of being clean and conservative. It was supposed to be the un-bohemian opposite of the Salt Lake City Weekly.

    It was a joke, and it flopped, mostly because the guys who started it didn’t have close to the capital needed to start a new publication, and the only decent writers I could get I lost because as the money dwindled the owners just stopped writing checks (but still kept commissioning stories).

    The owners were counting on all the conservatives in Utah to rush forward with support. And a lot of people reading were really rooting for it to succeed. But the ad sales guy would go around to businesses and show him our paper and the SLC Weekly and point at all the seamy stuff in the bohemian rag and say, “We don’t do that.”

    The business owners said, so what? Show me what you DO do. And with the clunky office technology, lack of trained staff and the loss of anyone resembling a good writer, what it did do wasn’t very impressive.

    In Ogden I was hired by another guy starting a newspaper, and there was a real market begging for a second mainstream publication. The owner managed to botch it through dishonesty and bad business sense, even when there were advertisers lining up wanting to give there business to someone besides the Standard-Examiner. This former bishop’s counselor thought it was fine to take an investor’s money, use it to pay his mortgage and call that a business expense. Meanwhile the staff eked along on poor pay, bad equipment and not enough professional help. Yours truly wrote every single story. It disappeared when good intentions failed to create enough revenue for a parasitic owner as well as the employees and vendors.

    My third venture was with a paper in North Ogden owned by a family of ever-so-righteous LDS folks who throw tens of thousands away each year because they can’t stop using the paper as their kooky family newsletter and message board. I took it over in 2003 and the advertising shot up and it was going places, but the owners insisted on ridiculous stuff like running a top-of-the-fold, front-page story about a stake president challenging his flock to have a “scree-free day” without television, movies or video games. Cute story — for the feature section.

    So the ad sales eventually dropped back down and the readers went back to joking about the paper, and it remains an expensive hobby for the owners, who nonetheless still harbor fantasies of seeing it pay for itself.

    The Utah Weekly and the Weber Sentinel thought being right or righteous would “bring down the blessings.” It didn’t happen, and though I learned a lot with them, they’re still a professional embarrassment to me.

    So S.P., you’re right on. People who think being nice is a substitute for being trained, skilled and gifted are all in for a rough lesson. Good art can be clean, but being clean doesn’t equal being artistic.

  12. I have some questions. Is there a fear of offending ward members and/or Church leadership causing a watering down of LDS writing, art and cinema? Do these alternative newspapers fail becuse they have no relevant content to the Community? Is there any LDS music that is not just refined white sugar? If not I will just stick with the wonderful Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

    In the visual arts some good non neo-romantic painting is beginning to happen and is being recognized as “good” art. We have, in my onpinion, a good Mormon humorist named Robert Farrel Smith. Maybe art that is for conversion purposes only is only some kind of advertising. I agree with S. P. Baily art should touch all levels of complex human emotions. If we are telling the truth do we need to fear the consequences?

  13. The problem of a sqeaky clean entertainment magazine is that most of the ads in SL Weekly are for bars, clubs, or similar things that wouldn’t be in a “clean” magazine. Exactly where would they even get their revenue from? I mean I’m sure the Zoo and art galleries have only so much advertising money…

    Besides which I’m not convinced most people read SL Weekly for the articles. Back when I was single we used to get it regularly to find out what stuff was going on. But I don’t recall reading the articles very often.

  14. Have you heard the Glenn Beck radio spots that are running? He call STATES OF GRACE “The best Mormon movie I’ve ever seen” and “I saw it and loved it. My family wept.”

    There’s not too many Mormons here in Illinois, but that ad has certainly caught the attention of all the Evangelical Christian listeners who are fans of Glenn Beck.

    I bought the movie because of an Evangelical listener who told me about 1)Glenn Beck being a Mormon, and 2)Glenn quoting all these critics hailing it as the best Christian cinema has to offer.

    So my neighbor (the Evangelical Christian) buys it, we watch it and we love it. He even thinks the movie has now converted me to “true grace.”

    I very much believe that STATES OF GRACE has the rare – and historic – potential to break down many of the long-standing barriers separating mainstream Christians from us. Mitt Romney’s impending presidential campaign has already started to focus national media attention on the LDS Church in ways and at levels not previously seen. I’ve seen the polls suggesting that a significant percentage of the Christian base would have issues with Romney’s religious affiliation, and that misconceptions are still rampant as to what the LDS Church believes and stands for.

    Can STATES OF GRACE become the landmark film that Kimball and others have talked about?

    It answers simple misconceptions (ie. polygamy, Mormons dancing and our take on grace) and presents a view of LDS life that has never before made it to the big screen.

    In short, does this film have the potential to actually shift and mold public opinion?

    I may not be as well-versed as all of you, but in my neck of the woods, STATES OF GRACE is a hit among many of my Evangelical friends. I’d love to hear your thoughts…

  15. I do like this discussion. I live in the rarefied Mormon world of West Jordan, Utah and honestly wonder whether those members of the church with whom I associate have ever considered the possibility that Mormon Cinema is problematic. I must say that I am constantly embarrassed by some of the attempts in this genre, particularly the Halestorm comedies. What worries me is that non-members would see these films and think that we (as a church body) really do fit the awful stereotypes cast by these films. However, I am hopeful. I do think that Mormon cinema will improve and find its way, when that happens nobody knows for sure.

  16. At BYU Education Week a few years back in the Auditorium of the Harold B. Lee Library they showed “Brigham Young” which was created by 20th Century Fox, released in 1941. Vincent Price played the role of Joseph Smith, taken out early in the film. An interesting portrayal.

    For me, the greatest part of the film is the speech Brigham Delivers in Court in defense of Joseph Smith. It is power packed with true genuine sentiment, paralleling the real issues of the day and very much in alignment to true speeches I’ve read by John Taylor and others of the early brethren who chastised their fellow countrymen who were ready to murder and remove rights of the Mormon’s a betrayal of their grandfathers battles against the British at Valley Forge etc.

    I would highly recommend all to buy that DVD. You will not be disappointed, and you’ll love the commentary on playback as well, with the special features.

    President Heber J. Grant wept for joy at the release of the film, for it was the first time Hollywood was fair to the story of the Mormon Church. As far as I’m concerned, it ranks as #1 so far in Mormon Cinema, all the remaining films don’t have substance enough in my opinion, lacking genuine substance and feeling, but too often take on the “theological tweenkies” what Elder Holland would call it with their “Spiritually empty calories.” LeGrand Richards grandson, a professor at BYU would call this same superficial emotion “sentimental trash,” which he said is “sweeping the church” if I remember correctly from a devotional he gave back in 1997.

    I must say that “Charlie” actually had some excellent emotion that felt genuine and pure from the female actress. She did a superb job, and the director did right with her. I applaud that film in those terms, as the characters weren’t made to portray fake sentiment, what one would call “touchy feely.” It was quite genuine.

    Brigham City did pretty well on that count too, as did God’s Army in some cases.

    States of Grace seemed fake to me, lacking in genuine sentiment as some of Ducher’s other films were. The ending seemed a bit too contrived, but I might be too picky with my criticism.

    From all that I see though, portrayal of Joseph Smith and prophets never even comes close to making the grade, all severely disappointing for me, excepting the part of Brigham Young in Fox Studios 1941 production as already noted.

    Prophets and most “good guys” in film are never made to show their strengths and qualities. One Church film a few years back had an unkempt, pathetic looking man stand on a wall in Zarahemla and make a donkey out of himself as he began to cry repentance to the people, he was thrown out of the city gate and “rejected.” I thought how unlike truth this was. He would have gone out and bathed, shaved, and made himself presentable and not tried to look like a whining goof ball at presenting the Lord’s message. He looked deranged. Joseph of Egypt before meeting Pharaoh cleaned up, put on clean garments, and shaved, and so I believe would all prophets if given the facilities and means to do so. Why do the good guys always look like fools, the attributes of their greatness always missing. Why are they great? Just because they are the “good guy?” True prophets are noble and their presents brings respect and honor. How is it that Darth Vadar brings respect and awe, while the sorry little Luke initially seems to show no qualities of greatness. Vador is respectable, though evil. In real life, Prophets are respectable, the villains not nearly so, for even Satan, began to rant and rave, gnash his teeth and wail when Moses refused to bow down and worship him. This is the reality of the Truly Godlike, vs. the Insane Demonic personalities, and rarely is this shown in film. The “good guys” are almost always a pure doofus that demand respect because of Godlike qualities, but rather the villains seem to have dignity and awe.

    I hope as Mahonri puts it, President Kimball’s prophetic vision will be accomplished sooner than later, we are in deep need of using cinema in a powerful way to fulfill the prophetic vision of Ezra Taft Benson in terms of flooding the earth with the book of Mormon, and for artists putting onto screen the great themes of this powerful book for which we as a church are under condemnation, a scourge and judgement for having treated it lightly.

  17. Shaun,
    I also really enjoy the Brigham Young film (which, interestingly enough, was the vehicle from which Tyrone Power joined the Church). However, I do have some issues with the films use of history. Not accurate enough for my taste, trying to change things for dramatic effect when the real story is actually much more dramatic. Although it certainly is positive towards the Church, which I appreciated.
    Unfortunately, there’s a film about The Mountain Meadows Massacre coming from Hollywood at some point soon starring Jon Voight. Where “Brigham Young” was positive, this one will be quite the opposite– from the reports, it seems that it has its axe to grind.
    As to the ending of States of Grace, I feel the same. It seems to be trying to force the emotion instead of trying to make it come naturally. It was one of the few issues that I had with what otherwise I consider a superior film.

  18. Thanks for your thoughts Mahonri. I failed to “proof read” my previous post, as is quite evident by those who read it.

    I just purchased a book called “Educating Zion” with landmark speeches given at BYU about BYU. There are three speeches there by Spencer W. Kimball that are absolutely thrilling. He speaks about raising our sites. He speaks of the future masters and fingers waiting to unveil themselves. I hope we see it, and I hope we see it hastening, as the world needs good art, culture, valiant and moral statesmen and scientists as Spencer W. Kimball speaks of in this absolutely stunning talks.

    I think it was my search for one of those quotes on google that first brought me here to this page. I’ve never met you Mahonri, but I did see that you’re writing plays, and foolishly I never attended one of them at UVSC when I was there. Surely you will, with humility and magnifying your talent, become one for which President Kimball was speaking? I hope so. I wished I sensed some great talent within myself that would begin to fill the vision of Pres. Kimball.

  19. Great set of thoughts. I think that the void we are experiencing in “Mormon Cinema” right now is the same type of thing a lot of businesses go through–because lets be honest, as important of an Art Form as film is, it is still a business. I live in Las Vegas which is a bit of a paradox in and of itself as a member of the Church–although I am a convert, and was taught and baptized here. The problems that I have seen are many–the vast majority of people in my Ward and my general association think that the Halestorm movies are the best thing since sliced bread (did I really just say that?). God’s Army, Other Side of Heaven, Saints and Soldiers, and similar excellent films, while popular among a few of my friends, for the most part get lambasted.

    The vast majority of people that I know at Church seem to be offended by what they see as “questioning” of Church Doctrine or portraying human frailty. Sadly, I know a lot of people who are just as offended by many of the scenes in God’s Army as the characters in the Singles Ward were by the “picture on the toilet” scene.

    I have to give Halestorm credit, because they have truly capitalized on at least the market of young adults that I associate with. However, I think that indicates a dangerous trend. I went to USC before I moved to Vegas, so I’ve been in the “Hollywood” environment. I feel that I have a perspective on film having spent most of my life as a non member. I agree that the vast majority of what Hollywood puts out is absolute garbage, but I think the LDS community tends to shy away from it to the point where we don’t have a perspective on what quality film-making is. That’s not to say that there aren’t good film-makers. Richard Dutcher, Ryan Little, and even a few of Halestorm’s movies (Singles Ward, The Best Two Years, Charly) are enough to prove that wrong. I loved Saints and Soldiers, primarily because it never once even said that the LDS Character was LDS. It was obvious to members of the Church, but I had many evangelical friends who were shocked when they found out that this “Great War Drama” was an LDS film. On the other hand, most of these same friends praised God’s Army on its production values and writing, but condemned it in the end because it concluded that the Church was true. I guess you can’t make everyone happy, but I don’t think that was the point :).

    The problem is that by aligning yourself with trying to make an impact in “mainstream” film-making, you instantly alienate a huge portion of the LDS audience. The people that I know have said that any movie which questions the faith or Leaders in any way, regardless of the conclusions drawn, is filth.

    I disagree with this completely, as I believe that asking questions can strengthen faith more than just about anything else. However, there is a certain amount of social pressure to conform within the Church.

    I think that we need, as film-makers, to focus on just telling good stories. I don’t think the majority of the membership of the Church is ready for “Compelling LDS Drama” yet, because thought-provoking work can still be seen as questioning. In a way, I think that is something which needs to be confronted, but I think that if LDS film-makers start focusing on avenues that promote faith and yet are not “blatently” LDS films it will be a step closer to achieving President Kimball’s vision.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s