Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Challenge of LDS Filmmaking

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.

Chris Heimerdinger

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Aubrey said...

I hope I am OK leaving a few comments here, I am not, nor will I probably ever be a filmmaker! My brother is one, but does a lot of smaller films, independent films. He long ago gave up on doing anything related to the LDS film genre, he just didn't get a huge response. I think you are so right in the fact that is is hard to find that perfect story that has the underlining message that is it LDS and still can make for a great movie. (I thought of Saints and Soldiers as well) I think that as an LDS writer and a filmmaker this would be such a challenge. As a movie goer I have fallen into that category of not really caring about some of the LDS films. I feel like once I've seen one, I've seen them all. Which is what makes Passage and Saints so unique, the overtures of LDS, not a symphony of "hey we are LDS and we make movies". I haven't seen it, but I have been told by many that God's Army 2 was better than the first, and everyone has said the same thing, it deals with the deeper struggles of life and the stronger temptations we all deal with. There was such a saturation in the LDS film industry, and not a good one. I do hope that there is a step taken backwards, and that perhaps some more thought taken into these films. It could be great and very successful, but not on the path it is right now. Quality not Quantity!

Three Coin Productions said...

Despite a lack of financial return, a theatrical release still holds value in the eyes of DVD buyers and distributors. Consider it a VERY expensive marketing campaign for the DVD.

For an LDS-specific audience, filmmakers need to tell original stories, at an "entry-level" budget. If theatrical release is the ultimate goal, then at this stage, we can't depend on the LDS audience to create a profit. If making a profit is the goal, then we must adjust our content, to fit alternative options of distribution.

I look forward to making and seeing high-quality LDS-specific content.

Dirtius Wifius said...

I think Brigham City did a very good job of being Mormon without preaching. It could have just as easily been done in an Amish community or one that was overwhelmingly Catholic. And most people don't consider it to be one of the "bad" Mormon films.

I totally agreed with your assessment of the genre. People only are burned out because of the ones that were done so poorly. I really hope that PtZ brings it back a bit, because I think you were on the right track.

BeatlesDiva said...

Chris, I loved the concepts and the direction you took with the film. A great job for your first time directing and producing! thanks again for letting be a part of the review team. If you ever want my opinion again, please feel free to ask.

I wish you all the luck in the future.

Bryan said...

Something else to consider--when people are spending so much on gasoline, there's limited money for entertainment spending. If an LDS filmgoer has a choice between the big budget flick they are almost guaranteed to like, versus an LDS film that may or may not be great, their money will almost always go to the big budget. Going to movies isn't a cheap hobbie.

My guess is that LDS filmmakers would be getting a bit more love in a better economy. But you're spot on that the scripts need to improve and production value better increase. Were you intending "Zarahemla" to be the cross-over film you talked about?

Jason Randall said...

I completely agree with your entry related to mediocre LDS film making.

What I'm aching to see are LDS messages in films made for the non-LDS crowd.

As a convert, I was lost when my friends were laughing at the 'in' jokes I hadn't figured out in a certain LDS feature we were watching.

In an age where entertainment becomes the education for a majority of Americans, I think we're missing out on a pretty big gap in cinema.

How cool is it that there's an opportunity for us to be subconscious missionaries to the general public?

'Big Love' doesn't have to be the only game in town, eh. :)

Teachinfourth said...

I agree wholeheartedly, however, my sister buys just about every "Mormon" film out there just because she wants to "support LDS cinema." While this is good, purchasing a mediocre movie only perpetuates the increase of movies of the same caliber.

I love it when a good, quality, LDS flick hits the big screen and am more than happy to support it when it does.

I probably shouldn't, but I'll list a few of my favorites (though not necessarily in order):

The Best Two Years
Passage to Zarahemla
The Single's Ward
Brigham City

RebeckerOnline said...

I agree with the Jason Randall comment. I'd like to see an LDS movie produced without those little clues that let you know it's an "inside" job. That being said, things I think are mediocre in some of these Mormon produced movies don't come off as cheesy as I think to non-Mormon friends. A difficult balance. The Other Side of Heaven showed in Virginia a couple of years ago and audience reaction was very positive as I walked out of the theater.

A friend (Erin)informed me of your movie and I reviewed it. It was a good flick, but I never even knew it existed until she informed me. I really thought I was reviewing a movie that hadn't made it to the theater yet! So, the Utah marketing hadn't hit me in this neck of the woods. I was out in Utah a few years ago and about died when I walked into a theater and saw all these missionary movies and such. I almost wanted to take pictures and pose next to the posters because it was such a strange/novel situation.

Some of us are after good entertainment regardless of the source and so are not typically going to support something (like teachinfourth commented already)just because a Mormon created it. However, I have to admit...I knew some of the people were Mormon in Napolean Dynamite and so I bought it - fuh-ney!

Chris said...

Everyone has made interesting comments. I'll add another. Two potentially "good" LDS movies were mentioned here. One was "Brigham City"--lost money. Another was the "The Other Side of Heaven"--lost LOTS of money.

Interestingly, "Passage to Zarahemla" DID have unexpected crossover appeal. It was picked up by an international distributor named KOAN, Inc. who now sells it overseas. There were two major scenes that we had to trim. The first was when the grandfather gave Kerra the Book of Mormon. That scene was trimmed and it just became a generic "ancient book." The other was the scene where Kerra and Kiddoni are walking along talking about the Savior. This was cut, which is too bad, 'cause it was my favorite scene. But the movie was sold in Japan, which is a non-Christian country, so go figure. However, anything related to Nephites, Gadianton, Lamanites, Zarahemla, etc., survived intact. The foreign distributors didn't think these words would have any more meaning than Terebitha or Narnia to non-LDS viewers. Will this "soften up" a viewer in a non-Christian country to LDS missionaries when they knock on the door?

Eh. I wouldn't count on it.

But maybe it would be one element out of hundred that got those missionaries inside. Or made it would make a subliminal impression AFTER they got inside: "Hey, I think I've heard of those Nephites before! I think it was...Oh, I don't remember, but it's a familiar word."

Anyway, I would love to see a movie that made no effort to hide it's LDS doctrine, or LDS culture, but was still perfectly palatable to a non-LDS viewer. We have no overwhelming example of this. Probably someone like Stephanie Meyer does more to soften up non-Latter-day Saints to LDS stories than anyone else right now. And yet...her stories are once again, we have no real examples of any movie or story that has central LDS characters or LDS theology that had earned the devotions of LDS movie goers. Sad, eh? It just doesn't sit well with most of the world. Like having a hero who is a Scientologist. Folks just can't get their heads around such a thing yet. But I do look to the day when they will.

Nephi said...

When I was in high school I was realy into film making,but if I wanted to make it a career, the only option that I saw was Hollywood. This did not seem like an option for me. The idea that I might be left with no option but to work on the next American pie movie or starve was not a situation that I wanted to get myself into. Then while I was on my mission I heard about the mormon movies that were coming out. This gave me hope that I might be able to find the career that I had always wanted without having to sacrifice my morals.
When I came back from my mission the RM came out and I was given even more hope that there might be a place for me. Then richard dutcher predicted that if the quality level did not stay high that it would me the demise of LDS themed films.
Much to my dread his predictions were quickly realized, dashing my dreams to pieces.
I now work as a diesel mechanic and I am constantly subjected to all of the crude humor, language, and general irreverence that kept me from going into the Hollywood film making arena.
I am not sure what to think.

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