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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Mormon said...

Wow, it sounds like you really don't like movies unless you did them yourself and that you're trying to create excuses for the failure of Passage to Zarahemla both in the theaters and on DVD. Just because you think that other films aren't great doesn't necessarily mean that these films are an insult to the religion. The real insult is that "a good church member" feels better to bash the industry for personal reasons and trying to make it sound like a service to others. It's obvious to me you're a fiction writer!

Michael said...

Chris, you still sound bitter about the poor performance of your film. You can't get yourself to believe that just maybe LDS folks weren't that interested in your film. Also, you always assume that LDS members are all like-minded thinkers when it comes to entertainment and you like to lump them all together. But the truth is that some people are embarrassed by Richard Dutcher's films, while others are embarrassed by Halestorm's. Why did twice as many people go see Emma and not Passage to Zarahemla? You write: "True religion deserves the highest standards of excellence. Any less will and should be rejected." Well, your film obviously got rejected. But when you get a poor review, the reviewer obviously must be completely biased. I find it peculiar that LDS filmmakers have an urge to publicly comment negatively on other LDS filmmakers' work. This is taboo even in Hollywood. All it reveals is that you're trying to find the answer outside of yourself.

Chris Heimerdinger said...

I think these last two commenters missed my point. But maybe the point wasn't all too clear. First of all, maybe I shouldn't have started out by talking about Passage to Zarahemla at all and using the term "okay" to describe my view of its performance. This was a personal viewpoint. Not a market viewpoint. It's really doing quite well from market standards. Just not as well as that original batch of LDS films from 2000-2003. That was the kind of success I was hoping for. This seems silly to now defend it, but maybe I need to sing its praises somewhat in light of the last two comments. Most reveiws of the movie have been very positive--especially from other LDS bloggers. In reality, it's been the best-selling DVD for Seagull and DB since its release, outperforming all other new releases and old releases. And it's done better than the last five or six LDS theatrical releases, both in theatres and in DVD sales just in the first month since it hit the streets. Honestly, it's done better than every theatrical release since "Work and the Glory 3." "Emma" is the exception. "Emma" did better, and frankly, it SHOULD have done better, and I explained the reasons why in my post. The mystery is why "Emma" didn't do EVEN BETTER. It DESERVED to do MUCH better. And those were the thoughts I was trying to elaborate upon. Hey, honestly, if our budget had been similar to say, "Return With Honor" our film would already be profitable. But we spent almost three times what they spent. Special effects being the culprit.

I make no assumption that LDS members are like-minded thinkers. We are not. But like any businessman, those who produce films ponder and plan and try to figure out how to reach the most people--how to communicate to the broadest possible spectrum. Few people creates movies--which is the most expensive of all art forms--with the intent of only reaching a select number of people. So when I know beforehand that my only audience is going to be the saints, my goal, obviously is to reach as many saints as possible. So I proffered some theories. Heck, I've spoken with people who feel that certain LDS movies I thought were terrible were the best thing since sliced bread. And they are welcome to that opinion since something obviously touched them that did not touch me. But when analyzing a struggling market, we look at trends and averages. We try to figure out how it could go better, and reasons may have existed for why something did not do as well as expected. Maybe it is simple quality, and I think I suggested that. But something hints that it's more than that.

Most especially, I'm not "bashing" the industry of LDS filmmaking, and a re-read of the article should make that clear. I've devoted my whole career to entertaining Latter-day Saints. And I want to see LDS films succeed. But there's no sense putting your head in the sand. "Errand of Angels" is the end of the line. I know of no other planned theatrical releases for an LDS based movie. And none in the works. (Maybe I can be enlightened here, but none of my friends in the business of movie-making are aware of any.) There are some LDS producers doing straight-to-video things, but even most of these are designed for general markets. What I don't want to see come to an end is the concept of LDS movies--movies aimed at an LDS audience that celebrate LDS culture and theology.

Sometimes in an effort to improve a medium fellow artists will often review or critique other products in the medium. This happens all the time, so I found this comment from Michael very strange. It is certainly NOT taboo--even in Hollywood. I'd give examples, but there are so many. Just read any trade magazine or Entertainment Weekly. A popular argument between filmmakers of today are those who deplore all the movies that are dependent upon special and digital effects. And they give titles.

But maybe for Latter-day Saints this seems distasteful. Leave all the criticism to those who know nothing about making films--just the consumers of films.

Sorry. I've just never been very good at keeping my opinion to myself. Fortunately, there are very few who disagree that there has been a plethora of bad LDS movies. So instead of trying to find fault with the very concept of offering specific opinions, let's recognize and accept that a problem exists and offer solutions.

Chris Heimerdinger

Tommy-Tom-Tom said...

speaking as someone who stopped going to lds movies about four years ago, I can certainly appreciate Heimerdinger's opinion of the biggest majority of lds films. I saw passage and liked it. Yeah, I'd put it up there with the best of the lds movies, but I wouldn't put it up there with the best movies ever made. I liked chris's idea that lds audience members are insulted by lds movies. that really hits it on the head for me. but I doubt his suggestion that lds filmmakers just gird up their loins and look for better material will have any effect. not so long as there are rich uncles who say "nephew, I'm gonna finance your dumb movie." the drive to just make something, even if its bad, is just too strong. so my prediction is different than Sir Chris's. I think the lds movie market is already dead and will stay that way until there's enough lds people in the world who can allow lds filmmakers to work with bigger budgets. until then, I hope most lds filmmakers make movies for all audiences. aren't we supposed to reach out to everybody anyway? Just an opinion.

Three Coin Productions said...

Chris, Congrats on the success so far. Well deserved. I don't find your post bitter or jaded, just experienced. The market is requiring us as filmmakers to become more diligent and disciplined in what we create. What are the stories that haven't been told? What are the budgets that the audience will support? What are alternative forms of distribution to gain a return? Right now, our options might be very slim, but we'll press forward...

Teachinfourth said...

I can see both sides; however, I think that I am in agreement with Chris. I stopped supporting LDS cinema some time ago, mostly because the films were either so poorly done, or discussed/reenacted things which they shouldn’t have…in other words, they shouldn’t have gone there. As a result, I was…embarrassed by the movie—and in a few cases—insulted.

Now, my sister is the opposite with the attitude of, “I’m going to support LDS cinema no matter what because I’m LDS.” To me this is not helping things get better. Like complimenting someone who sings really badly with, “Great job…you’re getting really good,” this type of support is not helping anybody. Now, if you give them instruction or pointers which improve their performance, this can then become a positive force to betterment.

In a nutshell: if we value something, we support it; however, can we get a bad taste in our mouths which sour us to all similar things in the future?

Yes we can.

Now, are any LDS movies the best films I’ve ever seen in my life? No. Do I enjoy a few of them? Absolutely. Will I support LDS cinema? Only if I feel like it’s worth it.

Trust is given freely at first, but once that trust has been violated, it needs to be earned.

Michael said...

Exactly my point. There has been a "plethora of bad LDS movies," but you don't include your own film to that plethora. In your case, the "other" bad films caused yours not to perform as well as you'd liked. And the makers of the "other" bad films probably exclude themselves also from the list.

You also exaggerate the performance of your film by stating that your film has "done better than the last five or six LDS theatrical releases." I can only come up with four, and three of them were really small theatrical releases (Anxiously Engaged, The Dance, and Beauty and the Beast). But while you exclude your film from the "plethora of bad LDS movies" you believe that "instead of trying to find fault with the very concept of offering specific opinions, let's recognize and accept that a problem exists and offer solutions."

If your intent was to offer solutions, I would have supported you wholeheartedly. I just couldn't find any solutions in your write-up. The only thing that this post says is this: Don't make a bad LDS movie. Duh. I hope at least a few LDS film makers will embrace this enlightening solution. They were just about to go out with the intent of making a really bad LDS movie, but then read your blog and felt inspired to change their ways. No one (including yourself) goes out with the goal of making a bad movie.

"The Coming Silent Years" is mostly a prophecy of doom. The premise is that LDS folks not only hate LDS movies but come away with a "mortally wounded psyche," "embarrassed," and even "ashamed." Those poor LDS consumers are "burnt out" because "their trust has been betrayed too many times" by a clear "breach of faith." They almost break down from the heavy burden of bad LDS films. Now, as we face the end of the (LDS film) world, "only time invariably heals all." But the doom can not be taken away because "I predict that before LDS film makes any kind of comeback, there will be several years of relative silence."

The truth is found in the second article of faith: We believe that LDS filmmakers will be punished for their own films, and not for other filmmakers' transgressions.

LDS consumers are certainly more careful in selecting their LDS movie entertainment then they were a few years ago. But they still decide on a case by case basis. Just because they select more critically doesn't mean they're not craving for good LDS entertainment. The opposite seems to be true: If there's all that garbage out there, LDS consumers should be more likely to notice a pearl of great prize when they see one.

You made a decent film. But does it really compare to Saints and Soldiers and Best Two Years? Here's some input for helpful self reflection: On imdb.com, Saints and Soldiers and Best Two Years have a user rating of 7.1 and 7.0. Your film comes in at 6.0, which is a lot closer to Baptists at Our BBQ, "one of the most eggregiously bad LDS films" (5.8). And both Saints and Soldiers and Best Two Years received 3-star reviews from Deseret News, while your film got a somber 1-star (even Baptists at Our BBQ got 2). At the end of the day, the truth is found in the second article of faith. Each film has to stand (or fall) on its own merits. I have read dozens of articles predicting the end of movie theaters due to DVD, HDTV, home theaters, plethora of bad films, and expensive ticket prices. And out of nowhere comes a film (most recently "The Dark Knight") that breaks all box office records to silence the doom sayers if only for a short time.

P.S. I wasn't aware that trade magazines are written by filmmakers.

Chris Heimerdinger said...

Michael, you're a strange cupcake. If you didn't like my movie, cool. I didn't really like E.T., but at the time I certainly got lambasted for it. To each his own. Since you actually have to log into this site to post, your frequent visitations are indeed a curiosity if only to make the point that I'm a phoney or a liar or an exaggerator. You left out several significant titles in your list of LDS films that were theatrically released between W&G III and Emma. But I think you're well aware of that and made your exclusions deliberately. And yes, trade magazines are constantly quoting filmmakers. And many articles are WRITTEN by filmmakers, producers and industry personnel. That's what the term Trade magazine means. But even in publications geared toward general readers like Entertainment Weekly or US, interviews and articles reveal exactly the same stuff. This is such a silly misstatement on your part that it serves to reveal the glint of your axe. Grind away if you must. But don't pretend you have any other motive.

Tommy-Tom-Tom said...

Well said, Sir Chris. but having been a blogger for years you have to know strong opinions attract the most obnoxious enemies and axe grinders.

I for one did not read your article as any prophecy of doom. It was more of a pep talk. so I think i'm with you that michael may have it in for you. but such an observation makes me a Heimerdinger lackey, right mikey?

i read somewhere, maybe on this blog, that the reveiwer from the Des News who reviewed Passage felt there was only one lds film worse than Passage, and that was Moving McCallister. that cracked me up since that wasn't even technically an lds film!

but i'll give credit to michael for one thing...he clocked some time and did quite a hunk of research to put you down. You should be flattered! must've got his goat bad somewhere or other.

If i can now get a job as Sir chris's no. 1 defender, i can provide an adress where to send cash! ;-)

Michael said...

Chris, I never said I didn't like your movie. I was just hoping for some humility on your part, but your last response is enough for me to not hope any longer.

If you got the impression that I didn't like your film, I apologize. I was just trying to make a point that had little to do with the quality of your film. I only responded to your argument that blames other films for your own film's performance, and calls most LDS films bad while putting your own film on a pedestal that appears to be a bit too high. If you would humbly include yourself in the group of filmmakers in need of improvement, you wouldn't come across as arrogant and prideful as you do (as indicated by the "mormon" comment above).

I also never called you a phoney or liar, exaggerator maybe. But you call me all those things ("strange cupcake"???). I didn't deliberately leave out any titles nor do I have an axe to grind. Please let me know which titles I left out. I don't mind to be corrected if I'm wrong (which you seem to take issue with).

I know that trade magazines are quoting filmmakers, but please give me a few quotes from filmmakers (directors, writers) who comment negatively about the films of other filmmakers. They usually focus on their own work and explain their creative process. You and Richard Dutcher took it upon yourselves to publicly put down the work of other filmmakers while elevating your own. My point was that filmmakers should focus on their craft and leave the criticizing to reviewers, academics and the general audience. I never heard Steven Spielberg say that "Munich" was not successful at the box office because of "the plethora of bad films" coming out of Hollywood. It's just bad taste to do so.

I found your argument flawed because it blames other films for your own film's performance. I thought you were open for solutions and other perspectives.

This is my last reply, so feel free to respond by questioning my motives without honestly responding to my argument (how dare I post on your blog without agreeing with you). Good night and good luck!

Chris Heimerdinger said...

You LIKED my film? I'm not even gonna bother restating quotes that communicated otherwise. You were wholly unsuccessful if your object was incline me to reconsider my argument, primarily because in the body of my statements I had already suggested them. I am fully open to the concept that my film is one of the bad ones. Time will tell. It's just not the impression that I've gotten, though fans sometimes aren't entirely honest.

And I'm not gonna list other LDS films released between mine and Work and Glory 3. Do your own research. One of them you didn't mention did nearly 100K in box office.

Your object was actually to invoke humility??? Do you even comprehend how arrogant, presumptive and patronizing that sounds? Dear Michael, that job already belongs to many of my family members, loved ones, and friends. You didn't even fill out an application. Just usurped the role--and in a tone that came off quite vicious. I don't mind criticism at all. Fire away. But when you decide to take on a celebrity and stranger with the object of making them more humble?, that's something entirely different. You'll be a much more effective blogger if you seek that which you try to invoke in others.

Anonymous said...