A new Mormon movie opens at Phoenix-area theaters this weekend, continuing a series of films with themes specifically related to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Well-received by critics, the movie is only the latest in a developing genre of independent filmmaking. The producer, Halestorm Entertainment, has made six movies, with three more in the works. Another company, Excel Entertainment, has made six, including the top-grossing Mormon film, God’s Army.
At least three of the movies, including God’s Army and The Best Two Years, focus on Mormon missionaries.
Halestorm’s most popular, called The Singles Ward, about life as a single Mormon adult, played in more than 160 theaters and made almost $1 million. The Best Two Years is expected to exceed that amount.
Scott Anderson, 46, who directed the movie, said the Mormon cinema scene developed out of pent-up demand for family entertainment among Mormons, not to mention the possibility that money could be made.
“Like any group, they are curious when they see themselves on screen,” he said. “The growth of the church opened up possibilities financially, so we have a shot at recouping our expenses.”
The LDS filmgoer possesses a discriminating eye, Anderson said. Not every film with a Mormon label does well.
“Of the 10 or 15 movies so far, a group of them was poorly made and that stifled interest,” he said. “A lot of people lost quite a bit of money.”
Anderson said it appears his movie has turned the tide.
“We have done well in Salt Lake City, and people say they are not ashamed to watch,” he said.
Viewers in the Valley who saw a preview screening Monday said they enjoyed the movie.
“This is way better than other Mormon films I’ve seen,” said Beverly Adams of Phoenix. “A non-member would get the humor, but might not totally understand the context.”
Karen Kae of Mesa said she also would recommend the movie.
“It was very moving to hear the testimony of the missionaries,” she said. “That can affect our own spirit and really wake it up.”
Most Mormon movies, however, have barely creased the awareness of non-Mormons. They typically are targeted directly at the LDS viewer, and few of them ever leave the safe harbor of Utah and other Mormon enclaves. The movies are made by Mormons for Mormons.
“Most of these LDS movies are very safe and familiar,” Salt Lake Tribune film critic Sean Means told National Public Radio for a story that aired in January. “They are all about the culture and sort of jokes about . . . green Jell-O and . . . funeral potatoes and too many dishes at the potluck . . . there’s not a lot of discussion about what it really means to be a Mormon.”
Just the word “Mormon” can affect interest in a movie.
“People tend to look at the religious aspects and not at the quality of the film,” Anderson said about Mormon movies generally. “The Whale Rider (with an Oscar-nominated performance by Keisha Castle-Hughes) had plenty of religious aspects, but it got people to focus on the film, not on its religious aspects. I tried to do that with The Best Two Years.”
Anderson added that even with religious elements, Mormon movies can be appreciated by general audiences.