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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Bren said...

I myself an LDS mother of three.My 8yr old loves PTZ, the pg-13 version is WAY pg compared to MOST pg-13 movies out there. Yes it does have violence but to me it seems nothing compared to my boy's imagination. Both my 5yr and 8yr old boys have listened to Tennis Shoes stories at bed time, in the car on trips and even sometimes just off and on thru out the day. They just finished the 10th book.
When they are in the zone of listening to them, they tell me how they can see it all in their heads like a little movie playing out.I know what they mean I think we all would. But lets face it the Tennis shoes stories also have violence. And so does PTZ book on CD. To me I kind of think what's the difference.
That's just my thought.

Denice said...

Those "cheap" to make movies have a higher payback not because they are because we buy them, they pretty much stink and we can't return them..the best we can do is dump them on ebay and try to get some of our money back..After watching Beauty & the beast I learned my lesson..I can use my rewards program at blockbuster save my free movie for those LDS Movies that come out...I am sorry but after a few stinkers I won't spend the money..I rented PTZ and it was good So I did buy the DVD..if the film stinks I lose nothing.

I don't watch Rated R movies and the way PG-13 is going I will be stopping that too, my baby still small 5 years old so we worry about barney in here and those horrible teletubies!

I will never let my child watch Beauty and the beast movie..It may not have cursing or blood, but it had a very mean screaming at the top of his head bad actor who treated another bad actress like dirt and left the church and drank himself stupid..Yeah No thanks! try not to follow that plan!

Chris Heimerdinger said...

Thanks for your kind comments, Bren.

I appreciate your insight, Denice. And I fear you may be right. Even the small screen will slowly deteriorate in popularity and revenues if the scripts continue to be weak. Still, I believe there is hope here and I would encourage you to keep the faith.

I would contend that the girl in the movie Beauty and the Beast was FAR from a bad actress. Hey, that's my Summer from Passage! And she is one of the finest talents ever to come out of Utah. But she prefers the stage, and recently played the Wicked Witch of the East in Wicked in Chicago.

Without direction or dialogue, you can get the impression that an actor is terrible when they are actually quite talented. For example, I've seen some TERRIBLE Heath Ledger performances. Think of The Four Feathers. Then think of Dark Knight where he owns the screen. Material and direction are sometimes everything. That's why good actors are sometimes very picky about scripts. They know that a bad script can ruin their careers.

Denice said... I am a bit biased with the actress, when I saw her in your movie, I was waiting for another stinker..seriously! but I did buy PTZ she was not that bad there, plus Kiddoni boy he was cute! I like watching him the most =D

You are right script needs to be a lot better and make more sense. have you seen the movies made for dvd called " Love comes softly" made by FOX, christian love story I doubt they spent a lot of money but the story behind it was beautiful and even though they are not LDS they are christians so I bought all 3 dvd's. if you have not seen it I has great reviews on it.

Now I did love the CD! Actually I bought the CD the next day. You should come out with more songs.

Teachinfourth said...

Agreement on my part, Chris. My sister will most certainly come to your home for the flogging if a Tennnis Shoes book does not hit the shelves soon.

I however, do not need to tell you how thrilled I was at the idea of RTC being made into a theatrical release. However, my only fear is that it won't match up to the movie in my head which plays every year when I read it to my class.

However, if it is indeed made, I'll be there...first show, no matter where it was playing.

Chris Heimerdinger said...

Making "Return to Christmas" into a movie has been an aspiration since shortly after it was first published, about 13 years ago. Rights were bought up twice by big Hollywood-type producers, but then for whatever political or financial reason, the movie was never made and the rights fell back into my hands. I've always felt it would be a great project, and I certainly understand concerns folks might have who love the book and fear the movie could never match up. But if there's any hope of that happening, who better than the writer as director to insure that it comes as close as possible? We'll just have to see. Still watching financial returns on Passage before diving into the next movie. And then, of course, there's the Jim and Jenny and Garth and Apollus and Meagan and Steffanie and Gid and Harry and....You get the picture. That's where I have to focus right now.

Bren said...

Beauty & the Beast?
Is that a new movie?

Chris Heimerdinger said...

Yes. There's an LDS version of this story.

Denice said...

I would suggest you rent it has it.

Jalapenoman said...

My comment is this:

LDS films are still in their infancy, much as regular filmmaking was in it's infancy 100 years ago. There was a lot of garbage made back then and it took many years before a true art form begin to emerge (The flawed "Birth of a Nation" being the first example).

Now, for every quality film that emerges from LDS cinema (The Best Two Years, The Other Side of Heaven), we have ten lesser works (The Home Teachers, The R.M., etc.). Please note that I am calling these lesser works, not lesser efforts. There was effort put into them and the filmmakers did receive an education into their new profession. If they learn from their experiences, that will be great and wonderful and an advantage to the growing movement.

I think another problem is that many of the filmmakers think "LDS Movies" and have to make extended length seminary videos. This is from their early LDS experience and it is what they see as "right and proper." I can identify at least half a dozen movies that follow this formula. While it was really bad in Tom Trails and improved starting with Like Unto Us, it has never gotten past the preachy intentions of the "lesson." Films like "Out of Step" and "Charly" are just 90 minute Seminary videos.

As far as a PG-13 rating hurting a movie, I say "hogwash." People who use that as an excuse probably would not have attended the movie anyway. There is subject matter that cannot be told effectively in a G or PG movie. Can you imaging the cuts needed to make Schindler's List PG? Can you imagine how much this would have watered down the story and how ineffective the movie would have become?

I must state that I support LDS filmmaking. I have purchased nearly all of the movies (the few good, the many bad, and the occasional ugly). I have done this to try to support the industry and to help fund future projects (I will admit to not purchasing any of the Work & Glory movies as I hated the Oliver Stone style pseudo history of the books).

As far as Passage to Zarahemla, my wife, my son, and I watched it last night for the first time (we just returned from a vacation to Utah and purchased this, along with a few other LDS films). We all enjoyed the movie and felt that this was a strong effort. I would currently rank it as a member of the A group (with an A-). Yes, it did have some problems and plotholes and I did not care much for the music. It was, however, an entertaining movie and we will watch it again.

Legolasgalactica said...

I loved the movie. One of my favorite lds films! I especially loved that lds culture and messages were not the storyline. It was a compelling, exciting, and imaginative adventure no matter the setting which made the lds aspects that much more compelling and successful.

I was very excited at the prospect of the Book of Mormon movie for the same reason and so disappointed at the result... it deserves another try.

If you made another movie, I'd love to see the 1st tennis shoe book or Ben Franklin.

The soundtrack was also the only non-musical one I've ever heard where I liked every track for its own sake.