Courtesy Excel Entertainment Group
Richard Dutcher (right) stars in Brigham City, a Mormon murder mystery that's won critical acclaim. Dutcher wrote, produced, directed and starred in the film.
The Sundance Film Festival opens Thursday in Park City, Utah. But so far, festival organizers have largely ignored an independent film genre thriving right in their backyard — Mormon cinema. As NPR's Howard Berkes reports, over the past three years, distinctly Mormon films targeting Mormon audiences have played in multiplexes coast to coast.
Dave Hunter, co-founder of Utah-based Halestorm Entertainment, figures that at least 10 percent of the 5 million Latter-day Saints living in the United States would be willing to see Mormon-centered films.
"If that boils down to 200,000 or 300,000 people that will actually pay for that, that will justify our box and us doing it," Hunter says.
Indeed, Halestorm's film The Singles Ward played in more than 160 theaters and reaped close to $1 million in profits, making the comedy a blockbuster by Mormon cinema standards. God's Army, a story about Mormon missionaries and challenges to faith, grossed more than $2.6 million in ticket sales — nearly 10 times its production costs.
But some critics complain too many of these niche films lack originality and quality production.
"Most of these LDS movies are very safe and familiar," says Salt Lake Tribune film critic Sean Means. "They are all about the culture and sort of jokes about… green jello 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."
There are some critically acclaimed exceptions, like the murder mystery Brigham City — but it didn't do as well at the box office as God's Army and Singles Ward. Another new film in the genre, Saints and Soldiers, has won awards at seven film festivals — but it was purged of all Mormon references.
"We’ve had a lot of people who love the movie," says Saints and Soldiers producer Adam Abel. " And unfortunately, I think if they thought it was a Mormon [movie], they may just automatically think it's a bad thing, rather than taking it for what it's worth."