8 March 2003
The Mormon Film Genre is still in its infancy. There were hopes of LDS films quickly sweeping into the mainstream of American life. That has not happened. For the most part, they have been limited to attracting mainly LDS audiences. In following the genre from the first news of "God's Army" to the most recent release "The R.M.", it is obvious that there is a market for LDS theme movies, but it is thin.
A serious problem for the genre is marketing. Only two LDS films have broken $1,500,000 at the box office: "God's Army" and "The Other Side of Heaven". "God's Army" received a remarkable amount of free publicity. There were multiple news stories on television, radio and print in areas with large LDS populations. It quickly made over a million dollars in Utah. It successfully played in every major U.S. city with a population of a few thousand Saints. Word of mouth from Utah paved the way to theaters through out America. Yet at the same time there were many Saints outside of the Rocky Mountain region that did not know when "God's Army" came to their community. Most had no other no means of knowing other than word of mouth.
The best box office of all the Mormon Genre Films "The Other Side of Heaven" made $4,750,000 at the box office. It was based on the best selling book of a General Authority, had a cast member, Anne Hathaway, who was coming off a smash hit, "The Princess Diaries", and the Church gave a great deal of moral support to the release. Many Wards and Stakes informed their members that "The Other Side of Heaven" was playing at their local theater. I know that it was announced over the pulpit in my ward in Texas repeatedly, and the same was done in many other wards and stakes. When the members knew a Mormon Genre Film was playing, they supported it. Yet even with the strong support of members, the film was considered a financial failure because of the $7,500,000 budget.
In reviewing the other released LDS films: "Brigham City", "Out of Step", "The Singles Ward", "Charly", "Handcart" and "The R.M." They can be broken into two groups; ones with name recognition (successful book, numerous cameos, a lot of free press) and those without. In the first category: "Brigham City", "The Singles Ward", "Charly", and "The R.M." The latter group contains "Out of Step" and "Handcart".
"Brigham City" had hype before it opened. There was a buzz as it was Richard Dutcher's first big movie after "God's Army". The movie was well received by most critics. It played in major markets throughout the U.S. In Houston where I live, the advertising was limited basically to a small ad in the newspaper. It played for a few weeks here, yet many of the 40,000 Houston Saints never knew it opened here. Houston is a city of 4,000,000. Advertising cost in a city of this size if prohibitive for any LDS filmmaker or distributor. The box office was also hurt by the PG-13 rating to which some Saints will not attend. The final box office was $900,000. Reviewing the box office records, I am not able to break down the exact box office number for Utah but I would place it near $500,000.
The other three in this group: "The Singles Ward", "Charly", and now "The R.M." are revealing a pattern. These movies all had name recognition and some publicity in Utah. "The Singles Ward" has made $1.2 million at the box office. About half of that was made in Utah. "Charly" which is near $800,000 at the box office made about $500,000 in Utah. There are an indications that "The R.M." will make around $600,000 in Utah. It appears that the Utah audience for a Mormon Genre movie with name recognition can expect between $500,000 to $650,00 at the box office from their play days in Utah. They tend to finish their runs limited to the western half of the United States.
"Out of Step" and "Handcart" have little name recognition. The box office numbers for "Out of Step" are not published, but they must not have been good as it was quickly pulled from the theaters twice (February 2002 and August 2002). Now there were some very positive reviews for "Out of Step". Newspaper reviews do not fill movie seats. To get people to come, they have to know of the film as a result of advertising or word of mouth. To advertise properly, the public must be repeatedly exposed to the product. Neither of these efforts had the means to effectively advertise to the LDS population in Utah. As for "Handcart" the box office has just broken $80,000. They did some advertising but it was extremely limited. It was not enough to draw an audience in.
Of the movies released to date only "God's Army" and "The Singles Ward" have made a profit. I suspect that "The R.M." will be successful. "The R.M" is tracking along the same path as "The Singles Ward". This is speculation on my part, but based on the box office of "The Singles Ward" and as it was self released (via Halestorm); the box office was close to covering all their cost. With a box office take of $1,200,000, I would suspect that half went to the theaters. That leaves $600,000. I do not know what the prints and advertising cost were but they have to be between $100,000 to $300,000. The movie budget was $400,000. The profits came via the dvd and video sales. It is my guess that "The R.M." will match "The Singles Ward". I believe that they, Halestorm, will be able to continue to successfully release films in their niche if they keep their budgets where they are.
A very positive side to LDS movies is the video and dvd market. Saints will buy the video of a Mormon Genre Film. There is a much stronger market here than for most low budget movies.
Basically what as occurred to date is that the average LDS film can expect a box office around $1 to $1.2 million if it is a film with some name recognition. Without name recognition, the return will be dramatically smaller. A Mormon Genre Film at this time can not sustain a budget of much more than $400,000 if it is going to have a reasonable chance to breaking even. A Mormon Genre Film with a $2,000,000 or $10,000,000 budget is setting itself up for disaster based on the historical facts thus far. There is nothing to indicate that there will be a change in the box office prospects for LDS movies in the near future.
The other side of the equation is capital to make movies. The risk to profit margin for Mormon Genre Films is not good. This will have a major effect in the future as LDS filmmakers try to find investors for their projects. Filmmaking has always been extremely risky. The Mormon Genre Film is no different. But if several investors in the Mormon genre get "burned" and loose a large part of their investment, the pool of capital will dry up and as a result most LDS filmmakers will be unable to continue to make pictures.
I have watched the crop of films that were announced with "Suddenly Unexpected" thin out considerably. It appears that the only LDS films that will soon be ready for release will be "Suddenly Unexpected" and "The Work and The Story". Neither film is well known among most Saints. If either film were to open in Utah today, both would most likely flop. It has nothing to do with the material or quality of either project. The audience does not know that these products are out there. The key to success is attracting an audience is to either advertise or build a word of mouth.
With Suddenly Unexpected, we are going to try a different way to build a buzz. We will be opening outside of Utah in art houses. We have an audience that will come in Houston to see us. We will then move to a few other U.S. cities outside of the Rockies before trying to make a run in Utah. If we can successfully attracting non-members in our run outside of Utah, we can get the press that we need to be successful in Utah. Members are waiting for the first big cross over hit. That movie will get a lot of free press in Utah. There is also word of mouth that we hope to build as people outside of Utah talk to their family and friends in Utah after seeing the movie.
There is also the question of distribution. Basically, there is Excel, Halestorm and self distribution for most LDS films. For Suddenly Unexpected we considered of trying to get a distributor for the movie. With the thin margins in Mormon films, it is possible that a much larger audience would see the film with a distributor yet still bring in smaller returns-maybe even nothing back to the investors. To make more movies, we have to make money. We have to make a profit. If we want to continue to be filmmakers, we have to have a return on the investment in our movies. Therefore Suddenly Unexpected will take the hard road and do it ourselves.
The filmmaker is at the end of the food chain. When the pay out comes, the theater gets their money and then the distributor gets their cut and lastly the filmmaker. If there is a box office of $1,000,000, the theaters get half. That leaves a $500,000 pay out. It appears that the average prints and advertising is running $300,000 for a LDS film. Now on top of that, the distributor gets 10% plus cost. You are now looking at only $150,000 left in pie before the expenses are taken out. It's not cheap to run a company. There is overhead, the salaries, and on and on. That will soon gobble up that $150,000. The filmmaker and investor are left with next to nothing. The distributor broke even and the filmmaker/investors are broke. If a film that makes less than $1,000,000 at the box office, the distributor will also end up in the hole too. Not having a Utah buzz, it will take tremendous effort for any Mormon Genre Film to make it to a box office of $1,000,000. The expenses will eat up everything with a distributor. Nothing would be left for the investors. When a filmmaker with a movie without a buzz self distributes, they will have a hard road but are more likely to have a better return.
The Mormon Genre is not dead but it is not healthy either. Ryan Little the force behind "Out of Step" and Kel Goodman the force behind "Handcart" are out making new Mormon Genre Films. Richard Dutcher is working on "God's Army II". Kurt Hale will be doing his annual movie. There will be more LDS films for the near future. The long-term questions are: Will the Mormon Genre be limited to only a yearly farce from Halestorm? Will the market improve so that capital will continue to flow for several LDS films? Will there be a break out movie in the Mormon Genre? Whatever the out come to these questions, it will still be interesting to see what unfolds for the Mormon Film Genre.
Mark Potter is a Houston based director/writer who recently finished his first feature length movie Suddenly Unexpected. You can write to Mark Potter at: firstname.lastname@example.org