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Joseph Smith gets his close-up

Mormon cinema comes to Missoula



This week a film called The Work and The Glory will open at the Carmike 10 in Missoula. If you’ve never heard of it, that would be forgivable—and not very surprising. Chances are that unless you are a member of the Mormon faith, the title won’t ring a bell. The Work and the Glory is the film adaptation of Latter Day Saint writer Gerald N. Lund’s series of novels of the same name. According to press materials for the film, that series has sold more than two million copies, which, in the publishing world, is nothing to sneeze at.

The most famous mainstream Mormon writer/director up to this point has been Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things), whose dark vision of relations between men and women has earned him an excommunication from the Mormon Church. LaBute notwithstanding, LDS cinema—films made specifically for a Mormon audience—is a phenomenon that has existed under the radar for a while now, and The Work and the Glory, made for $8 million, is the biggest-budget LDS-oriented feature produced to date and made outside the Hollywood system. The executive producer of The Work and the Glory—the money man—is automotive industry entrepreneur Larry Miller, most famous as the owner of the Utah Jazz basketball team.

In Hollywood parlance, The Work and the Glory is a “limited rollout release.” This means the film premiered in theaters in Utah on Thanksgiving weekend, historically the biggest opening weekend of the year for Hollywood films. In December the film opened in Idaho. On Jan. 21, it moved on to 45 cities nationwide and then on March 11, the date the movie debuts in Missoula, it opens in 45 other cities across the country.

The production values of The Work and the Glory are high—the photography is as lush and gorgeous as a Sierra Club calendar. The story is reminiscent of something you might see on The Hallmark Channel. The characters are in an 1820 period piece yet seem strangely contemporary; the dialogue is a little cringey and the storytelling is so heavily expository as to render it clunky. Though none of the film’s lead actors are immediately recognizable, most are professionals who have had small roles in mainstream films or on television. The technicians who worked on the movie have an impressive array of name-brand Hollywood production credits in films including The Aviator, The English Patient, Titanic, Independence Day and a number of IMAX movies.

The filmmakers are not the first religiously oriented folks to jump into the film business and must doubtless have been encouraged by Mel Gibson’s astounding success with The Passion of the Christ. As the whole world knows by now, longtime leading man Mel Gibson couldn’t get Hollywood to invest a plug nickel in his religious/cinematic labor of love, so he ended up breaking the unwritten cardinal rule of film financing (“never, never, NEVER invest your own money in a project”) and made the movie himself. Gibson utilized a unique system of distribution when he enlisted the help of pastors representing all Christian denominations in churches across the country, and as a result The Passion of the Christ went on to shatter box office records, ultimately making the already wealthy Gibson $981 million richer.

The lesson of Gibson breaking the “never finance your own film” rule has not been lost on groups with an eye toward producing their own potential blockbusters.

Excel Entertainment is the Utah-based company that markets and distributes The Work and the Glory. Excel spokesman Spencer Deery told the Independent that, unlike The Passion of the Christ, “LDS church pastors are not actively encouraging parishioners to see The Work and the Glory.” But by virtue of the fact that the books sold so well, the film will have a high name recognition factor and therefore, the theory goes, a built-in audience willing to plunk down the seven or eight bucks at the box office on word-of-mouth and title recognition.

Other religious groups are using film to get their stories told as well. Left Behind, a best-selling series of Book of Revelations-inspired novels, has become a series of films, produced outside Hollywood circles and extremely popular in Christian fundamentalist circles. The books have sold very well, but the films have mostly gone direct to video, never having made a dent at the box office. However, filmmakers with religious affiliations aren’t the only affinity groups producing films these days without the validation or money of the traditional film industry. Among those who’ve also thrown their wallets into the ring are casino-rich American Indian tribes financing the projects of Indian filmmakers.

In another example of filmmakers operating outside the system, Hollywood was taken completely by surprise just last weekend when Diary of a Mad Black Woman—a film that came out of nowhere (at least as far as the film industry is concerned), made by a writer/actor totally unknown in film circles, but huge on the so-called chitlin circuit—became the number one grossing film at the box office. A William Morris agent was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying that while he’d never heard of Black Woman writer/producer/actor Tyler Perry, “every African American person I’ve asked knows exactly who he is.” The point being that while the non-LDS movie-going public might never have heard of The Work and the Glory, the two million Mormons who’ve bought the books certainly have, and a great number of them can most likely be counted on to check out the film.

All this is not to say that Hollywood has never flirted with organized religion. B.M. (Before Mel), the late Father Elwood Kaiser was a film-savvy Catholic priest who started and ran Paulist Productions. Kaiser also conceived the Humanitas Awards—which has became one of Hollywood’s most respected and sought-after honors—and made a name for himself as a genuine player in the movie industry. Courted by industry heavyweights, Kaiser was a larger-than-life figure and behind-the-scenes operator who could pick up the phone and reach any mogul or superstar in town in a matter of minutes.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that it has not been lost on religious factions that cinema is a remarkably effective tool for getting one’s message out into the world. Several years ago, I was astounded to find out that one of my most gifted screenwriting students, a man in his late 30s, was an incognito Jesuit priest who had been sent to film school to obtain his MFA in film directing by the Catholic Church—a fact he’d kept to himself until after graduation.

As of Tuesday The Work and the Glory has grossed $2.8 million, and Deery told the Independent that he fully expects Larry Miller will recoup his $8 million investment. If that is the case, Miller has said he would be willing to finance a sequel.

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