We may have shot ourselves in the foot.
With "Passage to Zarahemla" the most revealing and disheartening thing that we learned (at least in the theatrical phase) was that party is over. A multitue of mediocre LDS films have taken their toll upon the interest of LDS moviegoers.
As LDS filmmakers, we earned it, we caused it; we wrote the script of our own destruction. As far as LDS films, I have my favorites. "Passage to Zarahemla" being number one, obviously. Not just because I made it. (Well, okay, that may be a VERY big reason.) But because I love fantasy and I love the Book of Mormon, and this is still the only option out there that fills both those needs simultaneously.
Otherwise, I'd have to go with "The Best Two Years" and "Saints and Soldiers." I also enjoyed "Singles Ward" and "The RM" though I know that both those films also have very strong detractors. I enjoyed them! I laughed. So what can I say?
Way back when this genre first began I remember telling Adam Anderegg (director of "Charly," which is my daughter's favorite LDS film) at a time when there was only one or two LDS movies even in the pipeline, that before this was all over there would be a lot of blood on the cutting room floor. What I meant was that the (gold?) rush to make LDS movies was attracting a lot of mediocre talent, and that the cumulative effect of this would be to diminish the overall interest in the genre in the minds of LDS movie-goers. I'm usually the worst prophet in the world, but on that one, I got it right.
I won't name all of the mediocre movies. Many of these filmmakers are my friends, and I've also learned that even a movie where 99% of the viewing public despises it, there always seems to be one very enthusiastic fan who is mortally offended if a particular movie is panned.
I recall vividly that many LDS filmmakers had the clear ambition of using the genre of LDS film as a stepping stone to making big-time NON-LDS or general market films. Such was the case with Richard Dutcher, Halestorm, Ryan Little and others. They had come to "see the light" that there simply wasn't enough money to be made by limiting an artform as expensive as filmmaking to only LDS audiences.
As far as "Passage to Zarahemla," we only garnered about 300K at the box office. Our initials orders for the DVD from Wal-mart and LDS retailers is much more enthusiastic, so we hope our investment eventually pays off. However, the box office take on "Emma" was not much better, at least when compared to the 2.7 million dollar take of "God's Army", or 4.5 million dollar take of "Other Side of Heaven," or even the 1.2 million dollar take theatrically of "Saints and Soldiers." LDS film-goers have simply become very skeptical. This is where we shot ourselves in the foot. Instead of producing better and better movies. Instead, and in most cases, our movies got progressively worse. Also, the novelty has worn off, and a theatre-goer who looks at the side-by-side marquees of a half-million dollar budget LDS film next to a 100 million dollar mega-Hollywood blockbuster just can't bring him/herself to spend 8 bucks on the low budget Mormon movie. So is DVD/home theatre release the only hope for LDS filmmakers? For now, this seems to be true. It's very true for "Passage to Zarahemla" and seems to be true for "Emma."
In theory, "Emma" should have done gangbusters at the theatre. It had tacit Church approval. Heck, they even got to use multi-million dollar budget material!--unused (and used) clips from the "Joseph Smith" production that is shown in the Joseph Smith Memorial on Imax. Even the same actors were used!--a coup that could only have been pulled off by the fact that the same director and cinematographer were employed in both productions) and extremely talented and experienced crew members. But theatre-goers were few, and its best hopes now lie with DVD sales, which I expect to be brisk.
Other LDS theatrical releases are forthcoming, including a sister missionary movie from "Baptists at our BBQ" director Christian Vuissa (hope I spelled that right). But with the shine off the apple, and fewer LDS movie-goers willing to support a low budget LDS production, what is the long term future of LDS movies?
First, perhaps we should define what makes a movie "LDS." There are, in my estimation, only three primary subjects that "sell" or define an LDS production: The Book of Mormon, LDS Missionaries, and Restoration Church History. These seem to be the most sure-fire subjects for LDS movie-making. I'm determined to pursue other concepts that I believe will sell, but this is for the future. In essence an LDS movie is one that makes no apologies for the fact that the Mormon faith is true, and discusses such sentiments in the context of the story, and/or has story points that only work in conjuntion with LDS doctrine.
This is an important definition to draw. I personally believe that LDS theology is so unique that it can spawn an exponential number of stories. I have no qualms with LDS filmmakers who choose to pursue non-LDS subjects, but who still keep their moral compass in check. In fact, I applaud it. But as far as LDS-genre movies, the future will depend solely upon the skills of the filmmakers and storytellers. Since the simple numbers do not allow for any potential profit if an LDS production spends much over a million dollars, we must, for the forseeable future, expect that LDS movies will remain low budget. This may also mean that for the forseeable future the arena for LDS filmmaking will primarily be DVD/home theatre.
I eagerly look for exceptions. And I would love to make a few more of my own. But there's only three ways that LDS filmmakers will be able to make LDS-genre films that can compete with bigger budget Hollywood productions. 1. Find angel-investors (like Larry Miller?) who seem fine with the idea of sinking a ton of money into a project without any concern for making a profit. In other words, they do it as a personal "mission." 2. we convert a ton more Mormons and thus, increase our potential audience. Or 3. (And this is a toughee) we write a script that successfully crosses over to non-members without hiding the fact that it is, at its core, LDS. This has never yet been done. Some might put "Saints and Soldiers" in that category, but "Saints and Soldiers" never confesses it's "Mormonness." It is kept carefully secret, and is only obvious to fellow saints. So although 3 has never yet been successfully done in a cinematic project, I still look the time when it will be done.
Filmmaking is such an expensive hobby. It's also extremely stressful and taxing on families and other personal ventures that meet the filmmaker's financial needs. (I am a case in point on those fronts.) So for the forseeable future, I would expect LDS movies to remain most popular on the small screen. Still, I heartily welcome dissenting opinions, and hope that I am proven wrong. There's no cinematic experience that compares to the big screen, sitting in a dark audience with strangers, laughing and feeling the energy of the people around you, as well as that massive surround sound. But it may be some time before LDS movies experience success in that arena again. I'd love to hear the thoughts of others, particularly the thoughts of those who are, or plan on becoming, LDS filmmakers of the future.
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
We may have shot ourselves in the foot.