Sunday, July 27, 2008

LDS Movies: The Emerging Small Screen

Okay, so it's official (more or less). I spoke with powers-that-be at one of the primary producers and distributors of LDS films, and they confirmed that as far as theatrical releases in the near future, the horizon is bleak. Errand of Angels is it. However, they feel as far as LDS subjects (features) coming to the small screen (direct to DVD) the future is very healthy indeed.

Some of the movies that have been direct-to-DVD for LDS consumers include Rescued, Singles Second Ward, Take a Chance, and others. Maybe we can hope for some improvement as far as scripts and performances, but still, I am highly encouraged that many of these project are profitable. Whatever you might think of them, they were produced for so little money (usually around 100K) that turning a profit has proven very do-able. That marks a big difference with what has happened with many recent LDS films that have had half-a-mill to a million-dollar budgets.

Now, I'm of the theory that if quality remains low, it will become difficult even for these mega-low budget movies to pay back their investors. But the model itself is nothing to be sneezed at. With the advent of such technologies as hi-def cameras and relatively cheap editing programs, like Final Cut, the prospect that LDS cinema will continue seems certain.

Okay, I hear some groaning. Not many of us hyper-critical movie affectionados have been impressed with what mega-low budget, straight-to-DVD-type cinema has produced so far. But don't sell your stock just yet. Many of the individuals who are producing and/or directing such movies are genuinely talented. Rest easy that they DO understand what good movies are and what good storytelling is. They're just in the middle of the learning curve with regard to how to "bring about" such things. And over time I feel confident that the quality of their projects will improve.

There's a feeling of hush-hush with regard to some of the projects being pursued, but I hear rumors of a sequel to Emma, a movie about Elivs's relationship to the Book of Mormon, as well as a film about boy scouts (there's my plug for you, Garrett) and many other projects that will, even if they are not directly LDS, strongly promote LDS values. Now, my personal objective is to see more films with Latter-day Saint themes and subjects. But it's very important that filmmakers understand that the most important feature (so far) of these profitable low-budget, straight-to-DVD movies is that they have been CLEAN.

In case you haven't heard, there are now MANY Latter-day Saints who will not even allow PG-13 movies into their homes. And considering what I've personally seen in so many PG-13 movies these days, I fully understand. So the number of saints who totally reject not only R, but PG-13 cinema, is growing.

My own film, "Passage to Zarahemla" received much flack for being PG-13, and I'm certain that this hurt our receipts in conservative LDS circles. And I don't feel inclined to whine or complain about this. Who am I to dictate to a family seeking celestial glory that they should change their rules just for my measly little movie? Yes, I'm proud that my film has no profanity or immorality and that it attempts to espouse noble LDS family values. But (let me whipser this) it does have violence.

Though I did my level best to try to keep direct violence offscreen (like when an obsidian sword kills a bad guy, you never actually see the wound), I came to realize that sometimes NOT showing violence can have a more powerful impact on a viewer. In one of my scenes of "violence" I show the bad guy's face very plainly as he is dying. This may be more dramatic and impactful than if I had shown the blood. It's something Hitchcock understood very well. Psycho , for example, has very little direct onscreen violence, and except for a cut on Martin Balsam's face (he's the guy who falls down the stairs) we never actually see wounds. Okay, so we do see blood in the shower scene. But Hitchcock deliberately made this film in black-and-white because he didn't want the bright color of blood to distract from the story. Now THERE'S a unique concept for modern filmmakers!

So to finish the point, Passage to Zarahemla lost some conversative LDS patrons because of violence. And all my efforts to "soften" such didn't change that fact that it was there.

Maybe some of the future stright-to-DVD stories will be able get away with a certain amount of violence. Violence or the threat of violence is sometimes the very essence of conflict, which is the root of all storytelling. It's all in how it is portrayed. But it should be noted that all of the successful small screen DVD releases so far have been VERY sensitive to the fact that they will not cross the lines of a G or PG rating. So let that be the first lesson to those who wish to pursue this medium.

As an artist, I know that many other artists will howl at the idea of being "boxed in" by such rules. They want to tell the stories they want to tell, and they scoff at any philosophy that encourages them to think differently. Well, I can only tell you what I would have done if I had Passage to Zarahemla to do over again. If I could go back and reshoot portions of my movie, I would have indeed reworked the way certain scenes were filmed in the hopes of obtaining a PG rating. I don't know if I would have succeeded. I would not have been able to compromise the appearance of the Gadianton Robbers. I would have felt a stronger loyalty to follow the description of these villains as found in the scriptures. But I might have been able to change many other scenes that viewers have mentioned over the course of time. Many of these scenes were cut for the "Less Intense Version" found on the DVD, and I can't help but wonder if the movie needed some of those "more intense" scenes in the first place. Also, I believe I would have changed the "mcguffin."

For those who are unfamiliar with that term, let me try and give a simple definition. A mcguffin in a story is the "thing" that moves the story forward. In a James Bond movie it might be a top secret microfiche the size of your thumb nail. In Radiers of the Lost Ark it was, of course, the Ark of the Covenant. In the first half of the original Star Wars (I doubt I will ever be able to call this movie "A New Hope" since I still consider it the best of all Star Wars films and because I have "half" of a wish that none of the first three had ever been made) it was R2D2 and the little hologram he had of Princess Leia.

In the Passage to Zarahemla it was the gym bag with drugs. I never showed the drugs. Never showed drug use. But just the fact that the mcguffin involved something directly related to drugs was another element that drew a PG-13 rating from the MPAA. Silly, I know. But those are the rules. I wouldn't have known so at the time. But I know it now. So I think if I were to do it again, I would have filled that gym bag with money or something else. It really didn't matter.

But despite my warning that all small screen movies should be as clean as possible, I'm sure some will still think they can cross the line. This may be unfortunate, because right now, oddly enough, LDS consumers trust our small screen movies. They will buy Beauty and the Beast with motives that have nothing to do with the movie's quality. They just want to be able to have something their kids can view without supervision and have no fear whatsoever that the subject matter will cross the line. And so far, that's what LDS producers of straight-to-DVD projects have given them.

I have a strong feeling that if my next project isn't another Tennis Shoes book, my entire career will be invalidated. So that's what I'm going to be doing for the next 6-to-12 months. But afterwards, I could definitely be enticed to do something for the small screen--a DVD with an LDS subject. If the only things lacking so far in this medium are decent scripts and strong stories, then I feel like I have an ace in the hole. Those I feel I can write. I've never had to fight very hard to think of good story ideas.

Now, before anyone thinks they have the inside scoop on my future, let me remind the reader that many things can happen between now and the completion of Book 11 of the Tennis Shoes series. I've also discussed with my investors the prospect of making A Return to Christmas, which would put us right back up into higher budget, theatrical release realms. But I have no qualms about going small screen to tell certain stories that are in my head. And I heartily encourage other LDS filmmakers to do the same. But please, try not to spoil what seems to be a valid, lucrative medium by proliferating bad scripts. We can hope that this doesn't matter and that the cream will always rise to the top. But I fear if we continue to pump out lower quality, this will not be the case. I would recommend that all producers, before you approach your rich uncles or mortgage your homes, allow your scripts to be read and critiqued by professionals--not just family or friends--but also experienced storytelling professionals. Give the LDS public the most powerful stories that you can. And secondly, put the bulk of your budget into actors. Nothing can hurt a great story more assuredly than poor performances. And finally, keep it G or PG. You can moan about this all you want, but that's simply what LDS consumers want.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

LDS Film: The Coming Silent Years

Now here's a prophecy wherein I hope I am dead wrong. I don't want to see this happen. But I fear LDS filmmakers are entering a dark, silent tunnel.

First an update. The DVD for Passage to Zarahemla is doing . . . okay. Its success seems to be steady, but as of yet it is still underperforming our expectations. Ah, heck. Maybe it's just a bad movie. Maybe it's only pride that keeps me in denial. But if I judge the situation while wearing my business hat, I can honestly say that the biggest challenge for us has not been bad reveiws, but bad public perception of all LDS movies. So many audience members decided about two or three years ago that there was no such thing as a good LDS movie. Others will politely point to "Saints and Soldiers" or "Best Two Years" as their "favorites", but the fact is that they really aren't placing those films on a very high pedestal either. I've been flattered by the many bloggers and reviewers who now put Passage to Zarahemla in their list of favorite LDS movies (usually alongside the other two I mentioned). But secretly, I wonder if this honor has much meaning. The pressures against the success of an LDS movie are still too strong.

I've stated my opinion before that there are really only three or four LDS movies (besides my own, of course) that are worth remembering. The rest are not worth remembering. In fact, many are downright embarrassing. And the list of non-memorable films is so long compared to memorable films that many saints now cringe at the mere mention of the genre. Yes, the shine is off the apple. Such movies are no longer viewed as new or unique. But if the quality had remained high (I think it was remarkably high in the first few years), this shouldn't have mattered.

Now LDS audiences are burnt out. Their trust has been betrayed too many times. Many LDS consumers now enjoy lampooning LDS movies. In short, they take actual pride in their rejection of the whole lot. This is especially true for younger audience members--those who are, say, 15-30 years old (and coincidentally, those who buy most of the theatre tickets). I can only compare the phenomenon to something like a fad that has become passe, maybe the way Hillary Duff became passe, or the way Miley Cyrus may soon become passe. In other words, people look back on LDS film and think, "I can't believe I actually watched those things." They have become "uncool." And to associate oneself with them makes one uncool by association. Only a young person could relate to this example, but think of your reaction if some kid came up to you and said, "Oh, I LOOOVE Pokemon." You'd make a face, right? You'd smile at them painfully. The meaner set would laugh and demean the poor kid until he was in tears. Unfortunately, LDS film, to some extent, now finds itself in that same category.

I've often said that the most common reaction I get from viewers of Passage to Zarahemla is that they are suprised how good it actually is. If I read between the lines, this means that they had very, very low expectations to begin with. Perhaps even getting them to view it in the first place was a monumental chore. I don't want to belabor this too much, because some have honestly hated my film. But I think I can neutralize my emotions enough to say that most have expressed far more positive feelings than negative ones. But I have another good example of a film underperforming expectations.

Look at the movie Emma. This film isn't bad at all. It has nice cinematography. It has tacit General Authority approval. After all, it uses the same actors as the well-known Church production on Joseph Smith, and despite its low budget, the Church granted these filmmakers the luxury (as an act of good public relations with the Emma Smith Society) of using HIGH budget footage from the Joseph Smith movie. Yet despite all of these home-run driving factors, the film has barely broken three quarters of a million at the box office. Is there anyone out there who feels that this movie is less important than, say, The RM? The RM made more than 1.1 million in box office revenues. That means it did at least 30% better than Emma. Does that seem logical or right? Okay, I will admit, I found Emma a little slow and was disappointed that it felt more like a documentary than a drama. But still, just as an LDS subject, it should have attracted far more interest and viewers. But it didn't. Why?

I believe the reason is because there have been so many downright bad LDS movies that the negativity has dwarfed even our sentiments toward the good ones. (Were they really that good?) And LDS consumers simply have little-to-no faith in the genre. Some might rather forget that it even exists.

There's an important reason for this animosity--one that nobody has yet discussed (at least none that I have read). This factor has hurt the genre more than any other. And here it is: Too many LDS movies have made viewers embarrassed to be Mormons. Some have been literally ashamed of what non-members or less-active members have thought of the Church after viewing one of these films. Some well-meaning saints may have even fallen into the trap of using an LDS movie to introduce someone to the gospel, and subsequently found themselves squirming in their seats. (Can you imagine someone using The Book of Mormon Movie with that object in mind?) This breach of faith, for many, is simply unforgivable. The feelings of Latter-day Saints toward their testimony is too poignant, too personal, too deep. And for a movie to make them feel ashamed of the thing they love most in this world . . . Well, you don't bounce back from that resentment very quickly. And this is why I predict that before LDS film makes any kind of comeback, there will be several years of relative silence.

Oh, I'm not saying there won't be a few blips on the radar. I've heard that Christian Vuissa's new movie on sister missionairies called Errand of Angels is actually a very cute film. It better be since I consider Christian's first feature, Baptists at Our BBQ, one of the most eggregiously bad LDS films of the lot. (I beg forgiveness now of the five people who think otherwise. They sometimes get VERY testy.) Nevertheless, unless Errand of Angels is truly remarkable, I predict it will not do particularly well at the box office. I hope I'm wrong. I wish no ill upon ANY LDS artist who attempts to celebrate the gospel. I feel so strongly about this that until I learn differently by actually viewing it, I will publicize this film enthusiastically, just based on the feedback of the people who have viewed it (people who I trust).

I've always wanted to believe that simply a good film would find its audience, but experience and observation have forced me to rethink that. For example, I actually thought Mission Impossible 3 was the best of the trilogy. But by then Tom Cruise's couch-dancing and Brooke Shields-dissing antics had put such a bad taste in consumers' mouths that the film's actual quality became a moot factor in its success.

Some might say, "Well, there's always the mega-low budget LDS movies that go straight to video." But unfortunately, if the quality of these movies continues along the same lines as it has, it will shoot bullets into the already-mortally wounded psyche of consumers and actually prolong any comeback.

I cannot say this more strongly: A bad LDS movie is an insult to the religion of the Latter-day Saints. And the saints will not tolerate being insulted. They will reject such products in earnest. Some with viciousness and venom. You can't change this. The sentiments and testimonies are too deeply rooted. Maybe it's the fact that LDS filmmakers were too casual in their understanding of this that has been the root cause of our current situation. Therefore, I would urge all future LDS filmmakers who desire to pursue LDS subjects to brand this concept on their brains. True religion deserves the highest standards of excellence. Any less will and should be rejected. If LDS artists will internalize this, it may serve to keep a lot of genuinely bad LDS projects from ever being greenlighted.

I think what LDS film needs to come out of its pit of darkness is three, four, maybe even five absolutely stellar productions. Budget doesn't matter. Only quality matters. (Yes, budget does often help quality, but not by much if talent is lacking.) And only after these films hit the market--some still suffering financially from the backlash of what has come before--will LDS audiences give the genre a second chance.

I hope this happens soon. Only time will tell. After all, only time invariably heals all.

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Thursday, July 3, 2008

LDS Storytelling: Cultural Vs. Faith-promoting

LDS teachers and artists have often tried to encourage a certain type of storytelling from fellow Mormons that has sometimes sparked philosophical debate among writers and readers. Should our art simply reflect our unique culture, and therefore make it palatable for non-members? Or should it serve as a tool for proselyting?

A half century ago I believe the vast majority would have favored the proselyting objective. But today it seems that the mere idea that an LDS writer or filmmaker may try to force LDS doctrine down the throats of unsuspecting non-members by using a tool as (allegedly) seductive and sublime as storytelling would be uncalled for, and in many LDS intellectual circles entirely frowned upon. I personally think some of this is because too many Latter-day Saints have come to fear their image in the world, and they do not want to be accused of doing something so (allegedly) deceptive as using storytelling or allegory to push religious dogma.

Personally, I feel I fit somewhere in the middle. Most know that I have written many novels and that I have also directed a feature film (based on one of those novels called "Passage to Zarahemla"). I sometimes smile as I listen to some young whippersnapper talk about how a story that attempts to preach or be didactic makes for a very bad story. This isn't true at all. Only BAD preaching and didacticism makes for bad storytelling. The fact is that it's only bad if the story gives the reader the distinct and overwhelming feeling that they are being preached at. The best lessons are always taught by example. Not by screaming in someone's face. But does someone who teaches by example have a motive any less pointed than the person who is being overtly didactic? The motive remains the same. To teach. To testify. And hopefully to provoke thought, and perhaps even (incredibly) to inspire a spiritual experience.

I know that this is always my motive in every story that I have ever written. But I'm also experienced enough, or saavy enough, or just creative enough to recognize that you don't change people by preaching. You change them by doing. By showing. In short, I don't have to have my characters testify to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon at the end of my books. Goodness! I tell stories about Nephites and Lamanites and time travel! I don't need to set up the reader so that I can stand on a soapbox and preach religious doctrine to them. If I were to do this, it would betray the very reason that a person picks up a book or watches a movie in the first place--to escape, to be entertained, to suspend their disbelief for a while and relax. But is my motive really any different than the old-time LDS novelists of the first generation (the 70s, I mean, when LDS novel-writing took off) who had their characters convert or testify of the truthfulness of the gospel in the last chapter? Really, I'm not sure if my objective is that much different. And yet I've always found that with the arts I seem to create a much more moving experience for my "customers" if I aim my themes "just past the mark." In other words, I believe the best storytellers explore areas where they don't have all the answers. And I'm no different. If we were to set a ruler on a table and measure how much Latter-day Saints know about the universe compared to other human beings, I do feel our knowledge would be a few centimeters further along the stick. But that measurement of our knowledge (compared to all of the available knowledge in this universe) would still be inside the first inch of the yardstick (or less!). As children of our Heavenly Father, I believe there is still so much to learn, and so much that will one day be poured out upon us. Perhaps this is why it is a distinct doctrine within Mormonism to be ever learning, ever seeking and soaking up knowledge. We are told that this knowledge will literally be useful to us in the next life. Not sure how, but it will be.

So when I create a story, I make no effort to "convince" my reader that my religion is true. That testimony is simply inherent in the story itself. I make no apologies for it. And yet I would be lying if I said that I was not cognizant of the fact that some of my readers have frail testimonies that are strengthened by the fact that I feel no need to question my faith. Yes, I know other LDS artists feel it a badge of honor to question their faith. I never have. My convictions flow through me and often seem as natural to me as breathing. So in my view the Book of Mormon is simply true. It's not just a culturally interesting artifact. It's the word of God. And I feel certain that anyone who reads my stories comes away knowing that this is my conviction. It's what I am able to do in my stories beyond that conviction that I find the most interesting, and the most satisfying as an artist.

For example, in my current Tennis Shoes Book (tentatively entitled "Thorns of Glory") I have an opportunity to explore a subject which has been explored many times before, and by many artists and filmmakers of many different Christian persuasions--Catholic and Protestant. I am offering a (fictional) point of view of the crucifixion of our Savior. (I'm also offering one the first detailed fictional accounts of the battle at Cumorah, but that's another point.) However, even though everyone from Mel Gibson to William Wyler has offered their take on these events, I have been suprised to discover that none of them has offered the same perspective that I intend to offer. Some of the subjects that I will explore have never been explored in fictional accounts of this event. Some of them have only barely been discussed in scholarly accounts. This is what will make this project fun and interesting for me as an artist. But never once in the entire course of the story will I step back and ask whether these events actually took place. The dramatic question is how they took place and what it would have been like to be a first-hand witness.

I've certainly read the treatises of LDS educators and artists who promote the idea of telling stories only from a cultural perspective. They applaud Jewish artists like Chiam Potok or Catholic artists like Flannery O'Conner who can discuss their religion from a cultural perspective and thereby make it palatable for those who are not of that faith. I have some problems with this. First is my basic philosophy that, because the Latter-day Saints got it right--because they really DO have the true religion--that Latter-day Saints really don't have a culture. At least not a culture per say. That will sound very strange to some who want to point out all the Utah-isms and traditions like Family Home Evening and the Moroni spires and pioneers and the like. But I still contend that even if these things may define some kind of culture that surrounds the saints of today, it really doens't define the saints of other dispensations. Sometimes it doesn't even define the saints of other countries. My books (gulp) are good example of that. It's possible that a majority of English-speaking Latter-day Saints have heard of my "Tennis Shoes" books. But if you ask saints in Nigeria or even Chile, chances are they have never heard of my books, and have hardly an inkling of the whole phenomenon of LDS fiction. And yet they still partake of the true gospel of Christ! Yup. I confess it. I'm a rather insignificant player in the vast orchestra called the "stone rolling forth to fill the whole earth." Still, I'm very, very happy to play the small part that I play.

My point is that gospel culture to a Nephite would be entirely different than it would be to a 1st century Christian as it is entirely different to a modern Utah Mormon. The true Church really does not have a culture, and the more it tries to define itself by way of its "culture," the less appealing it is to the inhabitants of the earth. Really, what the gospel of Jesus Christ seeks to do is to marry ALL the cultures of the earth into one faith-centered and mighty family. And my personal belief is that storytellers or artists who seek to make Mormonism palatable to non-members by defining our religion strictly in cultural terms will do Mormonism a serious disservice. Doctrine becomes muddy. Convictions are watered down. And all in some strange effort to be accepted or celebrated or revered by the "world." I say (in my best Italian-American accent) "fa'get about it!" Don't ever shy away from your religious convictions in your storytelling. That kind of effort will inevitably come off just as phoney as the preachiness of a storyteller who blatantly tries to convert the reader.

An artist can never escape who he is. I've often told young artists that if they want to hide the flaws of their personality, don't become a storyteller. Maybe you should become a sculpter. Because a storyteller sticks it all out there for everyone to see, whether they want to or not. Your weaknesses will be visible. And I firmly believe the most spiritually astute will immediately be able to make a sound judgement regarding the state of your testimony. It's just the nature of the beast.

So here's the rule: just be honest. If you believe this is the true Church, don't hide it. And yet at the same time, don't feel the overt need to preach. Your testimony will shine through despite your best efforts to disguise it. For many this should be welcome news. We can so often be such an uptight people. And the notion that we can just relax, be ourselves, and tell whatever stories we want without having to worry about what our bishop may think is a very liberating concept. Or at least it SHOULD be. Honestly, I often second guess choices that I make in my books. I DO worry about how kids might react to my words and images. But that's okay too. That's called trying to follow the Holy Ghost, and I believe seeking to follow that force is an artist's best course. I reject all artists who feel they are somehow honored or blessed for the talents God gave them. I believe artists are first and foremost servants.

So serve well, fellow artists! And in the end, you may discover that celebrating the gospel with storytelling is much easier than you first suspected.

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Guest Post on Millennial Star

Chris Heimerdinger has guest blogged on on LDS Films and Passage to Zarahemla. Take a quick trip over there to catch up on the action!

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